Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Mystery of Whales

            As mentioned several times previously, Moby Dick is The Great American Novel. Just like the whale is the largest creature in the sea, Moby Dick is the greatest book in American literary history. This is quite a large title to live up to. As the “Greatest American Novel,” it has to encompass more than simply literary references. Melville opens the novel with the chapter “Extracts,” which quotes not only literary references, but biblical references, political references (a speech by Daniel Webster to the U.S. senate), musical references, references to the unknown, literally from “something” unpublished, and even references to the natural sciences. Yes, I think Melville was successful in covering all the major categories. His objective was not to simply tell a story, but also to impart some knowledge to the reader about whales. He begins with stressing the importance of whales, while also drawing attention to the fact that most people know nothing about whales. Of course people are going to be curious about whales. They are the largest creature in existence in the world. Unlike most creatures of facination to humans, the whale is extremely hard to study because it is hidden in the depths of the ocean. Because of this, there is an endless amount of mystery and thirst to know more about the majestic creature. 
            By opening the novel with Extracts, he is saying that Moby Dick is going to be more than a novel, just as a whale is more than a fish. Because people knew so little about whales, whales embodied mystery and wonder. Melville makes use of this throughout the novel by bringing together the natural and the supernatural. He brings together the cold hard facts of science (even though most of them were eventually proved false) and the mystery associated with the sublime natural world. With so little known about them, whales were considered sublime. Of the eighty-two quotations in Extracts, there is no theme that unifies them. Some quotes glorify the whale such as “A tenth branch of the king’s ordinary revenue, said to be grounded on the consideration of his guarding and protecting the seas from the pirates and robbers, is the right to royal fish, which are whale and sturgeon. And these, when either thrown or caught hear the coast, are the property of the king.” (BLACKSTONE) Other quotes in the chapter portray the whale as a fierce beast such as “Scarcely had we proceeded two days on the sea, when about sunrise a great many Whales and other monsters of the sea, appeared. Among the former, one was of a most monstrous size…This came towards us, open-mouthed, raising the waves on all sides, and beating the sea bfore him into a foam.” (TOOKE’S LUCIAN) The first quote calls the whale a “royal fish,” while the second calls it a “monster of the sea.” Clearly, there are very different perspectives of the whale, which reinforces that people were ignorant of the whale. In Cetology, Melville gives us a scientific classification and study of the properties of whales. In this chapter, science is brought into play. The actual plot of the story is set aside, as Melville takes us through his classification system of whales. While this chapter was tedious and hard to read at times, it was also very interesting and ultimately important to the rest of the novel.
            Melville begins by stating that very few people have written scientifically about whales, and because of this very little is actually known about whales. Most of what has been written is fictional literature merely speculating on whales. Are they the gentle giants of the ocean, or are they the bloodthirsty monsters of the depths?  All scholars that have written about this have said that it is “impenetrable,” or “incomplete.” Melville lays out his entire system throughout the chapter, but still ends with, "But I now leave my Cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught- nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!" (Chapter 32, Page 120). There is still more to learn, and nothing is ever completed the first time. 


  1. After reading your introductory paragraph I am unsure about what your argument is going to be. I am not too sure where or what your thesis statement is, so it kind of leaves the intended focus of your paper up in the air. I would implore you to add or change a few sentences in order to show what direction your paper is going to go and what you are attempting to argue. As I continue to read further I see that you are attempting to narrow down your focus to the ambiguity that the section “Extracts” holds in regards to whales. Even though this is an interesting idea there is still no argument here. I really do feel like you have some good ideas but I just think your paper needs some direction. A thesis and evidence to support it in the text would strengthen this paper ten fold but without it it is much more of a summarization.

  2. I often do this myself when writing where I summarize too much without getting to the meat of the argument. While your argument appears to be vague (are you trying to prove that the novel by nature of its length/complicated commentary itself represents the great whale? are you looking at the novel as a way for Melville to prove/disprove the various ideas of what a whale is?) I think the idea of the "Great American Novel" has your strongest potential. Exploring Extracts could allow you to pull the various quotes Melville has collected together and bring those into the reading. If you want to argue that Moby-Dick is the pinnacle of American literature draw on how Melville connects the religion, science, literary and political throughout the text we have read so far. You state that he was successful in covering the categories, pick one and extrapolate.

  3. I, too, have a lot of trouble figuring out what you're up to here. For my part, I'm not too crazy about the "great American novel" theme, for a particular reason - I think you're writing as if Melville *knew* he was writing the great American novel - which is a difficult, messy argument that would require biographical research - and I'm not sure why it's interesting in the first place.

    I love this line for its simplicity and clarity: "By opening the novel with Extracts, he is saying that Moby Dick is going to be more than a novel, just as a whale is more than a fish." It's clevery, pointed, and interesting. But without denying that you have some interesting thoughts on the extracts, I also have to say that they aren't terribly focused - and that your thoughts on Cetology itself lack even what clarity the section on the extracts has. Not that your thoughts on cetology are *wrong* - they are just unfocused, not having an argument or even really moving toward one.

  4. Does no one recall that the novel begins with "Etymology"?