Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Great Leviathan

            Melville often likes to discuss the nature of what is happening and the ideas and thoughts of his characters instead of just writing a basic plot.  This is apparent in many of his chapters such as “The Whiteness of the Whale” where Melville goes into the terror and majesty the color white inspires in our hearts and mind instead of leaving us to inquire into the fearful nature of the great white whale by ourselves.  In this way he guides us throughout the story in a way that not only conveys the plot but conveys his purpose and teaches his reader to think about what he wants. “Ceteology” is an example of this.  He forsakes the normal method or at least the method I learned as a child of categorizing whales by what they eat and instead decides to categorize the whales by size.  This is not completely unusual, it is a way that helps with identifying a whale from a ship versus a dissection but it is none the less an interesting decision that helps leads us into Melville or Ishmael’s frame of thought.
                Considering the subject of the book is a whaling voyage, in which the crew is concerned with making a profit and producing oil I think it is interesting that the whales are not split into categories by oil, whether the amount or category of which they produce.  A chapter focused on this viewpoint would bring us back again to the nature of the voyage Ishmael is undertaking, reinforcing our idea of the voyage as a voyage for work and profit and an important industrial undertaking.
                Another possibility for Melville would be to refocus us on the travel of the ship, on the idea of seeing the world and exploring the unknown.  Ishmael did enter onto the ship with the purpose to, “see the world;” (79, Melville) this, could be done by splitting the Whales not by size but by location.  Splitting the whales into categories this way may not be as practical considering the distance whales travel and people’s lack of understanding on their migration patterns; but, it would return our attention to the unknown seas and lands Ishmael is looking to see on his travels.  In considering the different areas whales live we would certainly focus on where Ishmael was going and like the whales how much is unknown and mysterious about the region. 
Melville, instead of sorting whales in these possible manners or on their general anatomy and habits, chooses to split the whales by size and with this choice sets the purpose for this voyage and story.  It is not to explore the whaling industry or the exotic places and people encountered on this journey although these ideas may also be present but to explore the grand, the bigger than life, the majestic.
By directing us to the size of the whale we are directed to how the whale most closely resembles something otherworldly, perhaps even something divine. This is emphasized again and again when the whale is called the leviathan (Melville 9) a term most well-known from the book of Job (Job 41:1-41:34) referring to a large unconquerable sea creature rumored to be everything from a crocodile to a dragon or in our story a whale.   “Nothing on earth is his equal— a creature without fear. He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud.” (Job 41:33-34)  By understanding that Melville is directing us to the greatness and majesty of people and objects in his story versus some other purpose we can then use this information to properly read the rest of the Moby Dick.
                One instance where we can take this focus on greatness is the brief chapter “Dusk” on page 184.  Starbuck, being a reasonable man set out for profit and not revenge is concerned with Moby Dick but not for the profit he will lose but with the overwhelming majesty and madness of Ahab and the crew.  His soul is “overmanned” (Melville 184) he has been given a divine “office” (Melville 184) in this voyage that he can see and yet cannot overcome and when he attempts to compare the great Moby Dick with a goldfish we know his hope will be for naught, for by the very comparison we see again the contrast with the great Moby Dick and know with Melville’s focus that such a large and majestic beast much like the greatness of Ahab’s madness will not disappear.  
                This focus we gain in “Ceteology” can also explain to us the long list of white beasts and fears we see in Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale”.  In this chapter Melville once again focuses on the great, this time moving away from just size and showing us the divine and terrifying nature of white, the things that make it majestic to our eyes. He presents to us that whiteness is divine by all the ways we connect the concepts, from Royal Romans, and the incarnation of Jove, to the White Steed of the Praries (Mellvile 206) and through this innate majesty and greatness of the color, he shows how it terrifies us. Without the focus we gain from “Ceteology” the chapter may give us some idea of why white may be terrifying but does not necessarily connect us with the larger focus of the story on the grand and majestic.
                By making size the main method of separating and distinguishing whales Melville gives us a glimpse into what he views as the most important quality of not only whales but of his work as a whole.  With this knowledge we can then evaluate everything we read to focus on the purpose of the work rather than struggling to find meaning in all the digressions of Ishmael.


  1. The second and third paragraphs seems quite out of place here. They are fair digressions, but they do not serve the paper in any particular way. You even acknowledge that in your fourth paragraph when you say his point is not to explore these things. I do like the main argument though. I think it would be interesting to explore the idea of the main idea of the color white in its relation with this chapter. I also had a hard time fully understanding your point of how separating by size shows Melville's main qualities of the novel. This essay just requires a little bit more focus I feel and a concrete thesis to expand on the main ideas that you presented.

  2. What Cody says - for a long time, I thought this essay was just wandering. The first several paragraphs just seemed completely unfocused. Then, suddenly, everything clicks together - you're arguing that Melville is helping us focus on theme of divinity (grandeur, etc.) by his peculiar way of categorizing the whales.

    When it's finally clear what you're up to, it suddenly seems like a good idea, rich with potential. I'd like to have seen more of a demonstration, though - surely he didn't need the whole of cetology (all 20 pages or so) in order to do this? Or did he? Is there something about the scale of the chapter itself that serves his purpose? It's especially odd that you don't do more with the opening of the chapter, when he frames his system of categories.

    that being said, it's a great idea that you're beginning to argue well. The introduction needed to be vastly clearer, and you needed to be at least somewhat more engaged with the text throughout - but this is moving in interesting directions.