Why Should We Read Melville’s Moby-Dick? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Her­man Melville’s Moby-Dick is a major 19th epic and a “Great Amer­i­can Nov­el” that rou­tine­ly appears on best-of-all-time lists next to Homer and Dante. This grand lit­er­ary judg­ment descends from ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry crit­ics who res­cued the nov­el from obscu­ri­ty after decades of scorn and neglect. When the book first appeared in 1851, no one knew what to make of Melville’s cos­mic whal­ing revenge tale. Reviews were high­ly mixed, sales dis­mal, the book flopped.

This Moby-Dick revival hap­pened to coin­cide with a peri­od of mod­ernist exper­i­men­ta­tion with nar­ra­tive struc­ture in the work of writ­ers like James Joyce and Vir­ginia Woolf. Sud­den­ly, Moby-Dick didn’t seem so strange any­more. More like a bril­liant, pro­to-mod­ernist tragedy. But if you expect straight­for­ward sea­far­ing adven­ture, as the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above by Sascha Mor­rell points out, it’s a hard slog. The exhaus­tive lessons on whales and whal­ing, chap­ter-length solil­o­quies, lan­guage so dense, col­or­ful, and allu­sive.… Leonard Woolf became so frus­trat­ed in a 1929 review, he called the book’s prose “the most exe­crable Eng­lish.”

Melville wrote bad sen­tences, Woolf pro­nounced. “His sec­ond great­est vice is rant or rhetoric…. I can­not see the slight­est point in this kind of bom­bast, and, when it raves on for page after page, I almost pitch the book into the waste-paper bas­ket and swear that I will not read anoth­er line, how­ev­er many peo­ple vouch for the author’s genius.” This con­trar­i­an­ism sounds an awful like Vir­ginia Woolf’s take on Joyce’s Ulysses. Like that book, Moby-Dick inspires wide­spread guilt among those who have been told they should read it, but who can’t bring them­selves to fin­ish or even begin.

Who was right: Melville’s ear­ly crit­ics and read­ers (and Leonard Woolf)? Or the mil­lions who have since seen in the nov­el some­thing pro­found and prophet­ic, though no one can say exact­ly what that is? Why should we read Moby-Dick? For many, many rea­sons, but most of all the lan­guage. The word “rich” doesn’t begin to describe the lay­er­ing of images: “A moun­tain sep­a­rat­ing two lakes,” Mor­rell says in a strik­ing exam­ple, “a room papered floor to ceil­ing with bridal satins, the lid of an immense snuff box. These seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed images take us on a tour of a sperm whale’s head.”

The sym­bols them­selves invite us into oth­er cryp­tic alle­gories. Chap­ter 99, “The Dou­bloon,” com­petes with Achilles’ shield in The Ili­ad for metaphor­ic den­si­ty, yet like a mod­ernist nov­el, it frag­ments into mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, each one exam­in­ing ideas of cur­ren­cy, con­quest, myth, rit­u­al, etc., as Ahab bul­lies and pro­vokes the crew into inter­pret­ing a coin nailed to the Pequod’s mast.

If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I’ve stud­ied signs, and know their marks; they were taught me two score years ago, by the old witch in Copen­hagen. Now, in what sign will the sun then be? The horse-shoe sign; for there it is, right oppo­site the gold. And what’s the horse-shoe sign? The lion is the horse-shoe sign- the roar­ing and devour­ing lion. Ship, old ship! my old head shakes to think of thee.

What Woolf saw as exces­sive bom­bast seems to me more like form mir­ror­ing func­tion. Melville writes sen­tences that must echo over the squalls and talk through mad­den­ing lulls that bring on strange hal­lu­ci­na­tions. Like Joyce’s, his lan­guage mir­rors the dis­cur­sive tics of Ahab and Ish­mael’s modes of thought—nautical, the­o­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal, soci­o­log­i­cal, myth­ic, his­toric, nat­u­ral­ist, sym­bol­ist: explo­rations into a bloody, cru­el, eco­log­i­cal­ly dev­as­tat­ing enter­prise that dri­ves its dement­ed captain—violently obsessed with a great white beast that has crip­pled and enraged him—to wreck the ship and kill every­one aboard except our nar­ra­tor.

Learn about Melville and Moby-Dick in the addi­tion­al resources at the TED-Ed les­son page.

Relat­ed Con­tent:   

Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entire­ty by Til­da Swin­ton, Stephen Fry, John Waters & Oth­ers

How to Mem­o­rize an Entire Chap­ter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Sci­ence of Remem­ber­ing Every­thing

An Illus­tra­tion of Every Page of Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick

A View From the Room Where Melville Wrote Moby Dick (Plus a Free Celebri­ty Read­ing of the Nov­el)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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