The inclusion of the “extracts” portion in Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” is a seemingly odd way to preface a novel. However as with many other instances in “Moby-Dick,” Melville is directing the reader in a particular direction for which they should analyze the text.
One of the most contentious points surrounding the novel is the meaning or symbolic relevance of Moby-Dick. The entire extracts portion is dedicated to various and differing quotes about whales, almost as if Melville anticipated the numerous interpretations possible.
The painting that Ishmael encounters in the third chapter sums up the ambiguity of the novel. The enormous potential for interpretation was even illustrated in the text of the novel.
“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.” (Melville 12-13)
An interesting quote is included from Lord Bacon, whose philosophies would have intrigued Melville to say the least.
“The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seethe like boiling pan,” is quoted as Bacon’s version of the psalms.
Similar to Ahab’s view of Moby-Dick, Bacon understands “the leviathan,” as a tormentor of the seas. Ahab called Moby-Dick an evil accursed white whale (Melville 36). In class, the symbolism of Moby-Dick was discussed. For every character Moby-Dick had a different meaning.
The fact that the quote is taken from the philosopher Lord Bacon is worth analysis. Francis Bacon is regarded as the father of “Empiricism,”1 the idea that all knowledge derives from sensory experience. Thus his interpretation of the leviathan would presumably be derived from some kind of experience.
This works for Ahab as well, whose idea of Moby-Dick is wholly empirical. We learn that the whale has essentially destroyed Ahab’s life, effectively castrating him as well as taking one of his legs. An interesting reading of Moby Dick can arise from this.
Melville’s inclusion of the extracts seems to lend to the chaos surrounding Moby-Dick’s meaning. In Bacon’s quote, the idea is presented that the whale is an antagonist of the seas. One of the points that was presented in class was chapter 54 “The Town ho Story,” in which Ishmael relays a story of Moby-Dick’s ostensible god-like nature. In swallowing up Radney, the argument was made that Moby-Dick was some sort of enforcer of good.
The fact that Ishmael is relaying this story of populist uprising to a group of Peruvian noblemen was perceived as some sort of underhanded jab at the higher classes. However, the final quote of the chapter falls more in line with Bacon’s idea of the whale.
“For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.” (Melville 54)
Melville also makes the point that the seas are an inherently chaotic place. The image of the self-consuming shark served as a symbol of the seas innate cannibalism. Moby-Dick seems to be a continuation along this same thread. As an inhabitant of the tumultuous seas, Moby Dick is a product of its environment and thus an inherent tormentor.
Melville’s choice of Bacon’s version of the psalms is significant. The original text in which the leviathan is mentioned is Psalm 104 which merely describes it as yet another sea-creature.
“…There the ships go; You formed this leviathan with which to sport. They all look to You with hope, to give their food in its time.” (Psalm 104)
Bacon’s version casts a significantly more disparaging light on the animal, in order to cement its tumultuous nature.
The rationale behind this creates yet another question about Moby-Dick’s meaning. Melville seems to be very concerned with epistemology throughout the novel. The inclusion of a quote from Lord Bacon, the father of empiricism, serves as a illustration of various methods of human understanding.
Ahab’s empirical understanding of the whale drives him to perceive it as evil, yet on the same token, Ishmael’s lack of understanding of the whale makes it seem ostensibly divine. This is a stark juxtaposition of ideas about knowledge.
In many ways, Melville is making a case against the manner in which Americans view knowledge, perhaps empirically. Ishmael’s acceptance of Quequeg could even be an example of this. Whereas the preconceived notions about the “uncivilized,” are based on what has been witnessed, Ishmael instead delves deeper into attempting to understand him.