Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Importance of Scientific Description in Moby Dick

Revision of Scientific Description in Moby Dick

One aspect of Moby Dick that clearly stands out to the reader is Melville’s ample use of scientific description to help tell the story of the White Whale. Melville devotes several chapters to classification and descriptions of whales as well as to detailed descriptions of the processes of whaling. I believe this use of science is an important part of Moby Dick, and that in trying to understand the novel, it is helpful to put it in a scientific as well as historical perspective.

There are several ways that these scientific descriptions contribute to the novel as a whole. The first way can be considered purely carnal. As Harold Beaver puts it, chapters like Cetology are “meant, of course, to stun the reader rather than introduce a true note of scientific inquiry” (Beaver 756). Melville was, presumably, trying to sell his work in order to make his livelihood as an author, and these descriptions would have proved interesting to a contemporary audience starved for adventure. (Ward 165) This is also an example of the importance of putting Moby Dick in an historical context: although these detailed descriptions can be confusing to a modern reader unfamiliar with the technology of the mid-nineteenth century, many of the terms used would have been at least slightly more significant to an audience at the time. Again, although these chapters may not have a high entertainment value to a modern reader, they were added, at least in part, for the entertainment of Melville’s contemporaries.

Describing the descriptive chapters of Moby Dick as being purely entertaining, however, would be taking far too simplistic a view of Melville’s work. In his thesis “He Gives Us More Besides: Reimagining Moby Dick as a Work of Science,” Nathaniel R. Young makes “an attempt to explore Melville and Moby Dick as a work of natural history, a work informed by the science of the day, which gives us more besides.” (Young 8) In reading this thesis, it is clear that Melville was influenced by the scientific studies of that time period, and that this influence should have an effect on how the reader understands Moby Dick.

In his introduction, Young compares Herman Melville to Charles Darwin, emphasizing the difference between Darwin’s desire to continue his education and Melville’s desire to “forge his spirit in the crucible of worldly experience.” (Young 4) I believe this strong desire of Melville’s to see the world, even if it meant taking a job that some might have considered below his station in life, is important to reading Melville’s descriptive sections on whaling. Melville believed in the power of experience; as a writer, I’m sure he wanted to convey this power to his readers. He achieves this through his detailed descriptions in chapters such as “The Line,” “The Dart,” and “The Crotch.” To an author like Melville, these chapters are not merely filler in a story about a whale, but are an attempt to more deeply involve the reader in the story. If the reader can imagine himself in a whaleboat as it is about to take a whale, then the story of Moby Dick will certainly be more powerful. This fact seems obvious, but I think it is particularly important in understanding Moby Dick because Melville puts so much time and effort into these descriptions. It seems that Melville did not want to leave any room for terms and events related to whaling to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is important that the reader does not skip or skim these sections just because the information they convey does not seem to be directly related to the plot; this information is meant to enhance the reader’s understanding of the plot.

Another important point that Young makes regarding the use of description in Moby Dick is that Melville’s description of whales closely follows scientific descriptions of species in contemporary natural history texts. (Young 26) Young specifically cites the works of Androvaldi, Gesner, and Jonston, and lists eight topics that these scientists used to describe life. He then goes on to provide specific examples from the descriptive scientific chapters of Moby Dick that detail these eight topics.

Young shows through his analysis that Melville was following a pattern of description when he wrote Moby Dick. Although Melville was not really educated as a biologist, Young argues that he was aware of scientific descriptions of species, and would have thus been aware of what details would have been considered worth describing. (Young 25) Again, I believe Melville is trying to help the reader experience his encounters with whales through these precise and detailed descriptions. I also believe this is why three chapters are dedicated to evaluating images of whales in contemporary art; Melville wants to warn his readers that not all images are accurate, and that the best likenesses are made by men or women who have actually encountered a live whale. Without a clear picture of a sperm whale in one’s mind, it would be extremely difficult to imagine how terrifying a whale the size of Moby Dick could be, which is why, once again, it is crucial that the reader does not skip or skim chapters such as “Cetology.” As Young describes it, “Moby Dick is a novel whose breadth and depth conspire to continually challenge the motivated reader.” (Young 9) Melville includes a scientific description of whales and whaling to help the careful reader reach a higher level of understanding through a deeper knowledge of relevant information.

Although these chapters of Moby Dick are certainly meant to play the role that Young has outlined, I believe that looking at chapters like Cetology purely for their entertainment or descriptive value would, again, be taking too simplistic a view. Moby Dick is a novel full of symbolic meaning; I do not think that Melville would have included any sentences, let alone any full chapters, that did not contribute to the spiritual meaning of the novel.

In his article “The Function of the Cetological Chapters in Moby Dick,” J. A. Ward goes into great detail in describing another level of meaning of the scientifically descriptive chapters. He states, “Melville constantly attempted to arrive at an understanding of spiritual reality through an understanding of physical reality.” (Ward 167) Ward argues, and I believe, that the scientific chapters all serve the purpose of helping Melville and the reader have a better understanding of society as a whole, as opposed to just a better understanding of the practices of whaling. Although these chapters certainly serve to entertain and inform, the deepest level of their meaning is the same as the deepest level of meaning for any of the chapters in the novel.

A perfect example of Melville’s understanding a deeper meaning through a “physical reality” is the chapter Fast Fish and Loose Fish, which combines a factual description of a whaling practice with an extended metaphor that comments on imperialism. Melville describes in detail the laws that govern whalers as they determine to whom a newly killed whale belongs. The laws are presented as straightforward facts, but at the end of the chapter, Melville uses these facts to understand a greater reality of the human condition. What starts out as a chapter which describes a simple physical condition, ends with a description of a human spiritual condition.

Another example of this can be found in the chapter The Line. Although the beginning of the chapter focuses on a long description of how the line is situated and used in a whale boat, the last paragraph provides another commentary on the human condition: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” (306) Melville uses the metaphor of the whale-line to understand a spiritual reality in life: that mortal men live in constant peril, but often only realize it when they are facing death.

Not all of the scientific chapters contain such obvious allusions to a spiritual meaning. Ward notices that the chapter The Gam provides a “whimsical commentary on the nature of human intercourse and communication.” (Ward 172) The closing paragraph also provides a comment on leadership and appearances. The image of a captain holding his hands in his pockets, even as the boat rocks beneath him, or of the captain holding “like grim death” to the hair of an oarsman evoke images of independent and self-sufficient leaders, such as Ahab, clinging to whatever they can to maintain their pride and dignity, even in the face of something as powerful as the ocean. (264) Although Melville does not directly give us a lesson in the form of a short paragraph or sentence as he does in other scientific chapters, it is still clear that a scientific or precise description, in this case of the practice of the gam, is meant to comment on another aspect of humanity.

As Ward puts it, “ the examination of the whale leads to an examination of all humanity and the entire universe.” (Ward 172) I would not argue that Melville is actually trying to analyze and comment on the entire universe in Moby Dick, but I would argue that there is the potential to discuss an innumerable number of topics through the use of Moby Dick, especially through the scientific descriptions that Melville provides. The way that the reader interprets these scientific passages is also directly related to how the reader approaches “the universe,” and the novel, as a whole. Should a reader wish only to gain a carnal understanding of the story, the scientific passages may seem dry and unrelated to the overall plot, even though they might have originally been intended purely to entertain readers trapped inland. Should a reader wish to learn a little more from the story of Moby Dick, these scientific descriptions might seem like a way for the reader to better understand the plot through rich detail. However, should the reader wish to gain a full spiritual knowledge of Moby Dick, these scientific passages can become another means of achieving this full spiritual understanding. In this type of reading, the scientific passages become no different than the passages and chapters that contain the main plot line or the metaphysical descriptions of the whale or of Ahab. When viewed from this final perspective, the scientific descriptions in Moby Dick are as integral to the overall story as any other part of the novel, and can be considered even more important because of the important historical and descriptive information they provide.

Works Cited

Beaver, Harold. ed. Commentary to Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Harmondsworth, England:

Penguin Books Ltd., 1972, 689-967.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or, the whale. New York, New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Ward, J.A. "The Function of the Cetological Chapters in MOBY-DICK." American Literature

28.2 (1956): 164. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Young, N.. He gives us more besides: Reimagining "Moby Dick" as a work of

science. Diss. University of Wyoming, 2010. Dissertations & Theses: Full

Text, ProQuest. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.


  1. This offers two kinds of improvement. First, it's a much stronger revision than your first revision was, primarily through your extensive and sophisticated use of research; it's also a substantial improvement over the original draft, both through the use of research and through the subtle but smart use of Kermode spiritual-carnal distinction.

    Your introduction was weak; opening with a general discussion of spiritual vs. carnal in MD would have been better; possibly you could have used Kermode.

    Your discussion of a carnal scientific reading of MD was excellent. If I were to offer a criticism, it would be that you could, in theory, have added more of your own viewpoint re: some particular passage or section, but your explanation of the relevant research was plenty good.

    Your discussion of a spiritual reading was good but not great. It was a little on the general side, and while I think your examples were solid, they were really about the technological or perhaps sociological side of MD. Now, one could very reasonably talk about science, technology, and sociology together in this novel, and presumably you would be able to explain your choice to do so - but the fact is, you're not offering, as we might expect, a spiritual reading of, say, "Cetology." If you were to revise again (that is, turn this into a final project), that would be the most obvious move - to do a detailed carnal *and* a detailed spiritual reading (in the light of Young, etc.) of some particular part or aspect of science in MD.

    This was rewarding and interesting reading.

  2. I enjoyed reading this because it was so straight forward and clear. I especially like when you talked about the quote in The Line chapter because I had been interested in that quote but never got to explore it.

    It also seems like you read and really understood all of your sources and you used them really well. I wish that I had heard more of what you thought and maybe used the sources in a more evidentiary manner.

    I could tell what your argument was and it was evident throughout the paper, but the argument was a little vague which contributed to some of the paragraphs seeming generalized. I was hoping that your suggestion of reading the scientific parts a certain way and putting the book in its historical context would allow you to reveal the greater message.

    I also liked that you pointed out how a lot of the scientific chapters were set up similarly (a bunch of technical stuff and then a paragraph reflecting on humanity). As soon as I read that, I realized it was true for a lot of chapters!