Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Importance of Extracts in Moby-Dick

“In the year 1690 some persons were on a high hill observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed; there—pointing to the sea—is a green pasture where our children’s grand-children will go for bread” (Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket).
 The preceding excerpt is derived from the Extracts section of Moby-Dick. I found several of the quotes found in this section to be intriguing, but this quote stuck out as one of the most important ones in my view.  This quote is attempting to demonstrate the vast reaching impact that whaling is destined to have on human society.  It implies that society will have much to gain both economically and socially from the business of whaling.  Society will become dependent on the oil that is produced through this occupation, making whaling a very profitable industry and the source of many people’s “bread.”   The meaning of this quote is implemented in several instances throughout the novel and incorporates one of the novel’s central themes, the importance that whaling possesses and the impact it has had on human history. This quote also serves as a lens to view differently some aspects of the novel, especially Melville’s intentions in writing Moby-Dick.
Before we discuss how the preceding quote can help us read a certain aspect of Moby-Dick differently, I find it necessary to comment on the possible intentions that Melville has in including the Extracts section.  This part of the book contains a large amount of quotes from multiple works ranging from The Bible and Shakespeare, all the way to science works and traditional songs.  All of these quotes seem to be centered around whales or the act of whaling itself.  These quotes paint whales as magnificent, powerful, and sublime creatures that are of great importance to human society.  The act of whaling is also shown in a glorious light that emphasizes the heroism and danger involved in this activity.  In addition to serving as way to show the great amount of importance that whales and whaling has had on human society, I believe Melville may have another intention hidden in the Extracts section.  In including such an enormous range of works in this section, I believe this may be an attempt by Melville to legitimize the literary value of Moby-Dick. This section shows that the novel involves so much more than just whales or whaling; it deals with an immense amount of other topics important to human society, such as those found in biblical text or famous plays.  I believe Melville is attempting to show that the novel has important value by inferring that it has the power to relate to a wide variety of important works, and that it has the ability to elaborate on the ideas presented in these works.
Moving on to the discussion on how the quote from Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket can help us view certain aspects of Moby-Dick differently, I would like to interrogate Chapter 24, which is titled The Advocate. In this chapter, Ishmael presents an argument for why the occupation of whaling is essential for society, and why whalers deserve much more respect than they receive from society. Ishmael states, “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! For almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!” (Melville, 119). Ishmael goes on to say, “I freely assert, that the cosmopolite philosopher cannot, for his life, point out one single peaceful influence, which within the last sixty years has operated more potentially upon the whole broad world, taken in one aggregate, than the high and mighty business of whaling. One way and another, it has begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continuously momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb. It would be a hopeless, endless task to catalogue all these things” (Melville, 119). It is not hard to see how the quote I selected from Extracts relates to these quotes from The Advocate.  These quotes serve to back up the one from Extracts by explaining that the business of whaling has led to so many advancements for society, including explorative and economic progress.  These quotes also indicate that society depends on the occupation of whaling for fundamental luxuries such as lamps.  Just like the quote from Extracts predicts, Ishmael demonstrates that whaling has become a valuable industry to our society and is a profitable business for many.  It is clear to see how similar ideas are perpetuated in these quotes, but how can this lead us to view certain aspects of Moby-Dick differently?
As I stated earlier, Melville uses Extracts to both assert the importance of whaling, and perhaps the importance of Moby-Dick as a literary work.  The quote from Extracts allows us to see that Melville most likely has the same view of whaling that Ishmael expresses in The Advocate. Therefore, we may be able to view Ishmael as a personification of Melville’s beliefs about the importance of whales and whaling.  Any statement or thought that Ishmael has about whaling may be related to Melville’s own beliefs.  If this is indeed the case, we may need to view Ishmael as a biased character that serves to perpetuate Melville’s own opinions.  As one reads Moby-Dick, they must always consider this possibility; there is always a deeper context to Ishmael’s statements and actions that is related to Melville’s own views.  If this is true, Melville implements a great strategy for pushing his beliefs by making Ishmael the narrator of the novel; Ishmael has an enormous amount of influence over how we interpret the story.   As a consequence, anyone who wishes to view this novel as objective and unbiased is mistaken.  Melville is attempting to advocate for his own beliefs by throughout the novel, and one of the main ways he accomplishes this is by having the novel’s narrator promote views similar to his own.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or, The Whale. 1851. New York : Penguin Books, 2003. Print.


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  2. Jesse,
    This is certainly an interesting extract to choose, and perhaps not the easiest to grapple with. While your assertion that the quotation serves as an example of the economic importance of whales and whaling is spot on, there are several things to keep in mind if you choose to revise this passage. The first is that this quote alone does not highlight the economic importance of the whale. There are entire chapters within Moby-Dick, that extensively drive this point home, the chapter you are quoting from being one of them. Second, Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket was published in 1835, and this passage, heeding the folklore-y tone with which it is presented, is most likely apocryphal. I.e. the tale is less of a prescient foreshadowing by ultra-insightful pilgrims, but instead an attempt to *legitimize*whaling itself by one of its chroniclers. Which, through your later discussion of Melville’s own jabs at legitimization of his work, you could probably fit in quite nicely.

    On that topic, although I do agree with your claim that the extracts serve to legitimize Moby-Dick, I do not believe that they serve to legitimize it through showing the reader a slew of different works that Moby-Dick would be in conversation with, or that it shares other, deeper themes than readily apparent from a scan of the back-cover summary. On the contrary, I believe it serves instead to legitimize the whale itself as *subject* - sort of an explanation for what there even exists a 500 pg. book about a whale in the first place (although this is just my opinion.)

    Which brings me to my third point – Melville’s anxiety. I personally believe Melville had a great deal of anxiety about reader isolation (at least at this point in his literary career, he sort of stopped caring after/during writing Moby-Dick) and I would view many of these chapters as him stopping and legitimizing his own material rather than force-feeding his own views and/or opinions (which are present, just not necessarily in the same fashion) upon the reader. This point probably isn’t terribly important, but I think it may be something to chew on.

    Hope this helps,


  3. I'd divide this essay into two components. First, you're concerned with the economic importance of whaling (or perhaps the history of the economic importance of whaling); second, you're concerned with the legitimizing function of the extracts. The most obvious problem is that you don't really make any pretense of having one essay; this is the start of two essays, lightly stapled together. For my part, I'm more interested in the one about economics, but either one could work. Throwing them together without more effort to make a united whole, though, isn't so great.

    What about a united whole, though? Is Melville trying to legitimize whaling as a literary subject by pointing out that it is already an economic engine? That might seem like a peculiarly un-literary agenda, but it's an interesting avenue to explore, at least.

    As Dean points out, there's a whole lot to be said about economics - and indeed, economic history here - which is part of why I was disappointed to see you mix a light treatment of that focused topic with a light treatment of a more familiar and general topic. There is so *much* material about economics here, that reflecting on it as predestined or preplanned development - giving the economic activity of the novel more historical depth - is a project worth doing.

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