Friday, April 1, 2011

The Many "It's" of Whaling

Revision to

While reading through the Extracts at the beginning of Moby Dick, I felt like the quotes all said pretty much the same thing: whales are big and strong. Whales are smelly and have large body parts. After a while they seem repetitive and blasé. However, near the end of the Extracts one particular quote caught my eye:

“And pray, sir, what in the world is equal to it?”

-Edmund Burke’s reference in Parliament to the Nantucket Whale-Fishery (Melville xiv)

If we take a closer look at this quote, there can be many interpretations as to what “it” can be. Unlike the majority of the other quotes, this one does not explicitly have the word “whale” in it. Instead, I believe this quote refers to the process of whaling itself, and more specifically the catching of the great Moby Dick. However, according to Melville, this quote refers to the actual whaling industry headquarters located in Nantucket. Another opposing view, that of the quote’s author Edmund Burke, can suppose the “it” to refer to financial gains through whaling. There are three different ways to interpret Burke’s quote, and understanding the quote itself can help the reader understand why Melville chose it in the preface of his book Moby Dick.

Following my viewpoint as “it” referring to whaling, understanding the meaning of this quote helps the reader to become more aware of what whaling means to each member of the Pequod. Each person is on board that whaling ship for different reasons. For example, the narrator Ishmael seemed to use the sea as an escape from his boring, methodical world. In the very beginning of the novel, Ishmael says he decided to become a whaler because he had no money and nothing on land was all that intriguing to him anyway. He even goes so far as to say whaling and a life on the sea is his “substitute for pistol and ball” (Melville 3), meaning Ishmael prefers life at sea to suicide. All throughout the plot Ishmael seems to at least accept if not love his time at sea. Whaling started out as an adventure for him, but in the end (perhaps through Starbuck’s influence) Ishmael seems to be more interested in the monetary gains by capturing Moby Dick. For example, he seems just as infatuated with the gold coin posted to the ship’s mast as the rest of the crew. Ishmael’s multiple references throughout the novel alone indicate his growing interest in monetary gains. An almost direct answer to Edmund Burke’s above quote/question seems to be given by Ishmael in Chapter 24 The Advocate: “Here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard” (Melville 122). I think here Ishmael means that some men get their educations through paper degrees, but sailors like Ishmael can get much more valuable experience and acquire greater knowledge through whaling. And in reference to the Extracts quote, no education can equal that given to a whaler.

To another main character, Captain Ahab, whaling is basically a complete opposite compared to what it means for Ishmael. Ahab considers Moby Dick to be the root of all evil. He makes finding and killing the whale who took his leg his one and only priority. His life as a whaler is consumed by his vengeance for Moby Dick. What whaling means to Ahab is shown in chapter 36 when he officially addresses the crew for the first time, saying:

“It was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now… Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me forever and a day!...Aye, aye! And I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out” (Melville 177).

By reading the quote from the Excerpts, it is easier to understand what whaling means to Ahab. Ahab will never be able to take revenge on Moby Dick unless he captures Moby Dick. Whaling consumes him, and consequently whaling and the pursuit of Moby Dick actually IS Ahab’s life.

What Ishmael and Ahab and the rest of the whalers have in common is one thing: they are all active crewmembers of The Pequod. The Extracts quote asks: what could equal a career of whaling? The novel Moby Dick answers this question: nothing. This is shown through Ahab returning to find Moby Dick, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask remaining mates under an unemotional and vengeful captain, and even Ishmael writing an entire novel on whaling. While the life of a whaler might not be luxurious, all of these men can’t help but return to the sea, or at least spend a large chunk of time writing about it. The sea and whales have consumed each and every one of them, thus becoming their world.

A point of view completely contrasting my interpretation of Burke’s quote is Herman Melville’s. Melville explicitly writes that the quote refers to the Nantucket Whale-Fishery. Instead of whaling, Melville believes this quote is about the whaling industry. While I cannot speak for Melville, it seems reasonable that his vantage point for this quote stems from his own ideas of Nantucket. Laurie Robertson-Lorant reports in her book “Melville: A Biography” that Melville had never even been to Nantucket until after he had written “Moby Dick.” Robertson-Lorant says that while in Nantucket:

“Melville met two men he had mentioned in “Moby Dick: Captain George Pollard, the ‘most impressive, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble’ master of the whale ship Essex, whose crew had to resort to cannibalism to survive when their ship was sunk by an angry sperm whale, and Thomas Macy, who gave Melville a copy of Obed Macy’s “The History of Nantucket”’ (Robertson-Lorant 322).

This evidence shows not only where Melville got much of his material for “Moby Dick” from, but also where his reference to the whaling industry drove his choice of quote. Even though Melville received the book on Nantucket from Mr. Macy, I do not think reading a book is enough evidence to accurately pick out an abstract quote and be one hundred percent sure it refers to a place you have never been. Nevertheless, Melville knows what he was doing so his argument that the “it” in Burke’s quote refers to the Nantucket whaling headquarters is certainly a valid one.

The final interpretation I would like to consider for what “it” refers to in the Extracts quote is that of the quote’s author, Edmund Burke. In Volume I of the Selected Works of Edmund Burke, a Speech is given by Burke on March 22, 1775 on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation With the Colonies. This speech is more about the economics; it is about how much more profitable Nantucket is compared to surrounding colonies. Burk describes his business as “perfect.” Reflecting upon the efforts to achieve perfection, he says in his speech that “when I see how profitable they have been to us, I feel all the pride of power sink, and all presumption in the wisdom of human contrivances melt and die away within me. My rigour relents. I pardon something to the spirit of liberty” (Burke 235). Burke says this only a few lines after saying the extracts quote, this indicating that to him, the “it” refers to economic prosperity in the whaling business. If we go with Burke’s actual interpretation and apply it to Moby Dick, reading the book might lead us toward thinking only of the monetary values of catching Moby Dick. Perhaps Ishmael’s character would view the Extracts quote similarly to Burke, solely focusing on the wealth to be gained through whaling.

No matter what viewpoint you take when reading Edmund Burke’s quote “And pray sir, what in the world is equal to it?” trying to take on a specific position helps to understand why it belongs in Moby Dick’s Extracts. Whether it is my viewpoint of the “it” referring to whaling and Moby Dick, or Melville’s viewpoint of it referring to the whaling industry, or even the speaker Burke’s viewpoint of it being the economics of Nantucket whaling, picking a perspective and sticking to it gives the reader greater comprehension reading “Moby Dick.”

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. Mob- Dick, or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1996.

Burke, Edmund. “Selected Works of Edmund Burke: Volume I.” Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1999.


  1. Your research here is good, and your exploration of the quote is rigorous, but your organization is a mess. It's hard for me to figure out, even after having read through the whole thing, what your priorities are, nor am I entirely clear on why *you* think the quote is important enough to write about in such detail.

    However, because your research is good, here's my point of view - something neither of us knew before. Burke's speech, which you're citing as having being given in 1775, and as being in favor of reconciliation with the colonies, is obviously a document from the lead-in to the revolutionary war. Burke was, of course, notorious as a pro-American liberal, and hence much loved in America. Why does this matter? You've proven, almost by accident, that this speech belongs to a political discourse about the relationship between Britain and America, which clearly relates to the revolutionary war. I don't know the details (maybe you do!), but presumably Burke is basing some part of his anti-war, pro-reconciliation argument on the Nantucket whale fishery. Otherwise, why would it be in an anti-war, pro-reconciliation speech?

    So what I like here is that you are successfully scraping away at the extract, showing that there is a hidden political dimension there, which might have repercussions through the novel. What I don't like is that you don't understand that you're doing strong, useful, possibly original work at the end.

    I'm not saying that the other meanings of "it" are irrelevant or useless; I'm saying that you don't organize your presentation of the different meanings well, *and* you save the best for last. I would have loved an essay about the significance of Burke's role in the novel (especially since you're good at historical research to begin with), but failing that, I would have liked a better explanation of how the different meanings of "it" relate and contrast, and why you pick one over another.

  2. I think all of your viewpoints on the quote tied together in some way, which I thought was good, but there is a flaw to it. It's something I have done in my papers as well, so this is probably the only reason why I caught on to it. You "listed" too much in your paper and didn't really give a good solid argument. So after reading your last paragraph, I almost wish you would have made the focus of your paper from the viewpoint of Burke. Then from explaining the viewpoint of Burke (which I also think would ultimately be the reason why Melville placed it in his extracts; therefore to me, Melville would have the same viewpoint but with the possibility of there being a little twist to it) and relating it to the novel, you then could have either agreed or disagreed and then given support for your oppinion.

    But you deffinately showed a lot of effort in your paper and it was interesting seeing how you were able to make so many different viewpoints to the little word "it".