Its reputation invariably preceding it, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a novel like no other. Whether readers expect a subtle work of art, a rollicking adventure story, or a ponderous, inaccessible book, they come to this novel with a sense that the experience of reading it will be memorable. The story Melville tells is powerful and tragic—a whaling ship captain, obsessed with the animal that maimed him, pursues it to the point of destroying himself and his crew, except for Ishmael, the novel’s narrator. But the plot of Moby-Dick is little more than a variation on those used by countless authors both before and after Melville. It is the way Melville tells the story that makes the novel incomparable. In fact, how a story is told and, more generally, how we interpret our experiences become as much the subject of the novel as Ahab’s hunt for the white whale. As relentlessly as Ahab chases Moby Dick, so Melville questions the nature of the interaction between the mind and the external world.
Although their dramatic roles in the novel are very different, both Ishmael and Ahab are central to Melville’s elaboration of this theme. As the novel unfolds, Ishmael’s asides, which together form an investigation into the origins of meaning, share the stage with the story of the hunt for the whale. Is meaning inherent in the world, or is it imposed? Ishmael would like to believe that the world speaks to us, however incapable we may be of understanding it—“some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher” (p. 470). But he cannot extinguish his doubts, and he is even less sure of his or anyone’s capacity to adequately represent the world and one’s experience of it to others. When Ishmael meditates on the connotations of whiteness in “The Whiteness of the Whale,” he is not merely probing the depths of a particular subject; he is also engaging in a philosophical exercise. Whiteness becomes one among an infinite number of things to interpret. As with other subjects into which the narrative digresses, the whale’s whiteness intrigues Ishmael because it simultaneously suggests contradictory meanings as well as the possibility of meaning nothing at all.
Book pages: 32
Book language: en
File size: 6.31 MB
File type: pdf
Published: 17 October 2017 - 09:00