It only takes two words to send shivers down the spine of the average high school sophomore: “Moby.” “Dick.” But despite the book’s formidable reputation, Ken Boa tackles this great American classic by Herman Melville in this month’s edition of his Great Books Audio CD Series.
The novel opens with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” and it follows the story of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and his quest for a rare white-humped whale named Moby Dick. The narrator, Ishmael, boards the whaler without knowing the captain and his vengeful mission to kill the whale, which once robbed him of his leg. Ultimately, the pursuit of that goal destroys everyone but Ishmael, the only one left to pass on the tale.
While today Moby Dick is considered the epitome of American Romanticism and a classic of American literature, it did not receive much fanfare when originally published in 1851 under the title The Whale. Appearing in print a year after Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and a year before Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, critics found the book, as one London critic noted, “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”
Well, part of the reason for the bad reviews it received was an oversight of the publisher, who left out the all-important epilogue. But as Ken Boa says, more than anything, the book was perhaps ahead of its time. Its structure, filled with long reflections on subjects seemingly unnecessary to forward the plot, baffled critics. Today, authors do much more experimenting with different genres, so readers are used to this and are therefore able to connect much more readily to Melville’s themes.
For Christians, there is much within the themes of Moby Dick worth contemplating. Killing the whale becomes Ahab’s all-consuming obsession. Symbolically the whale comes to represent any goal which, if followed with such single-minded passion, can destroy us.
As Boa points out, before Ishmael leaves for his voyage, he hears a sermon on Jonah. In words full of foreboding, Father Maple warns, “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”
Ahab is fundamentally incapable of disobeying himself and his own driving thirst for revenge.
Ultimately, Ahab’s death is a symbolic display of how our own obsession—or idolatry—can destroy us. As Ahab hurls his harpoon at the whale, the harpoon’s rope, accidentally looped around Ahab’s neck, pulls him into the dark oblivion of the sea.
But the book also explores the limits of human knowledge. While Ishmael comes to accept that he will never fully be able to understand the whale, symbolizing the mysteries of nature, and potentially even God, Ahab rails against the inscrutable—the inability to know everything. For Ahab, elusiveness, mystery, and limitations upon his knowledge are unacceptable—and in this we see echoes of both Lucifer’s and Adam’s fall.
Moby Dick is by no means an easy read, but the themes in this novel can be a window to the human condition. Let Ken Boa be your guide as you sound the depths of this classic American novel.