“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.