Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Problem with the Narrative in Moby Dick

It has been slow going after that finally good chapter on Ahab's obsession. I quoted from that chapter extensively a few posts ago. I was, for a moment, actually into the book.

But then Melville takes yet another turn away from the events of the book!

It has been slow going getting past them. I am several chapters behind because I just haven't wanted to pick up the damn book.

After that great Ahab chapter there have been several that don't advance the narrative at all.

In fact, they read like literary criticism. They are Melville himself expounding upon the symbolism behind the whiteness of the whale. Interesting to a literature major like me, sort of.

It's hard, I tell ya. even says:

These chapters contain very little action, focusing instead on the meaning of
the events already described. In the first place, Ishmael takes considerable
pains to ensure that the reader will not interpret his story as a tall tale
fabricated to impress the gullible. He demonstrates in great detail that a
specific whale can be recognized, become the subject of rumor and legend, and
even be hunted. His request that his narrative be taken literally and not as
some “hideous and intolerable allegory” emphasizes that Ahab’s desire to kill
Moby Dick exists not on some symbolic level but rather in the realm of corporeal

If that is actually the reason, do you lose the reader? Or do you gain classic status? Remember, Moby Dick was not a bestseller back in the 1850s. says,

By the 1850s, whaling was a dying industry. Whales had been hunted into near
extinction, and substitutes for whale oil had been found. Despite its range of
cultural references and affiliation with popular genres, Moby-Dick was a
failure. Its reception led Melville to defy his critics by writing in an
increasingly experimental style and eventually forsaking novels in favor of
poetry. He died in 1891.

Moby-Dick remained largely ignored until the 1920s,
when it was rediscovered and promoted by literary historians interested in
constructing an American literary tradition. To these critics, Moby-Dick was
both a seminal work elaborating on classic American themes, such as religion,
fate, and economic expansion, and a radically experimental anachronism that
anticipated Modernism in its outsized scope and pastiche of forms. It stands
alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as a novel
that appears bizarre to the point of being unreadable but proves to be
infinitely open to interpretation and discovery.

So is this entire exercise in reading something purely for the sake of reading something tough? Was Melville writing in a grand American literary tradition? If so, explain to me why these novels are not prevalent on best seller lists. This is a book that then defines the difference between English literature professionals and the layman reader. Certainly there are more articles to write about Moby Dick than a current bestseller by John Grisham, but which do you really want to read? I think that even English professionals will admit to reading Grisham to read something good.

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