Moby Dick – The Great American Novel?

The American poet and musician, Bob Dylan, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. In his acceptance speech he cited Moby Dick as one of the three books that influenced him most. His reference to the novel ended: “That theme, and all it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”

Moby Dick - the great American novel
The great white whale in action

Herman Melville’s masterpiece has a strong claim to the title “The Great American Novel” especially with that endorsement from a songwriter who no-one would deny deserves to be regarded as America’s songwriter because of the huge number of his songs that address the essential American themes.

There is no consensus on the subject of which novel deserves the title “The Great American Novel”  but if we take the meaning of “great American novel” to be a novel that in some way deals with America’s national character we need look no further than Moby Dick. Most nations have a national epic poem and Moby Dick is the prose equivalent of that. The novel has some hefty rivals, however, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, among some others, but it is definitely able to hold its own in that contest.

The opening sentence of the novel, “Call me Ishmael,” is among the most famous openings ever, and certainly the most famous among American works of literature. The novel is the sailor, Ishmael’s, story of the quest of the obsessive Captain Ahab, master of the whaling ship, Pequod, as he frantically seeks revenge on the great white sperm whale that on a previous voyage, has bitten off his leg at the knee.

Melville did not live to see his novel become regarded by many as the greatest novel ever written by an American, a reputation that stands today. It was a commercial failure and at the time of Melvilles’s death in 1891 it was actually out of print. It was only much later when it was resurrected by some of the modern writers, like William Faulkner, who said he wished that he had written the novel himself, and D.H. Lawrence, who called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world,” that it began to emerge from literary death.

One of the things that puts the novel into contention as the great American novel, apart from it’s being a detailed account of one of America’s traditional industries – whaling, in exploring the racial and cultural diversity of life aboard an American ship Melville was addressing significant American concerns, as America is essentially a nation fashioned from global diversity. It also focused sharply on the American concerns of class and social status and the position of God in the American mix.

The question, as always regarding the contenders for the great American novel slot, is what is this novel about – what is its meaning?

One of the novel’s most striking features is that the text is full of the taxonomy of the whaling industry – whales, boats, harpoons and other implements of the trade, in minute and unrelenting detail. Ishmael debates all those things, including the pros and cons of everything, in a double sided view that demonstrates the limitations of scientific knowledge and the impossibility of achieving certainty. It also establishes Ishmael’s  meditative and open-minded stance in contrast to Ahab’s dogmatic rigid and obsessive nature.

It’s unusual for anything written in America to feature black characters outside of the context of slavery but the topic is mentioned frequently. The crew of Pequod is as multiracial as any modern crew would be. Ishmael is afraid of the tattooed cannibal, Queequeg, at first but decides to  bunk with him on the basis that “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” However, the theme of race is explored mainly through the small cabin boy, Pip

The difficulty of seeing and understanding is a central theme. That difficulty makes it hard to discover reality and impossible to pin truth down. An example of the way that works is in Chapter 99,  where everyone perceives the coin (the doubloon) in a different way, each one seeing it as it’s shaped by his own personality.

The age-old theme of human beings versus nature is played out in Moby-Dick as something that can’t really be properly considered, as neither can be perfectly understood. The crew members are incapable of understanding their own nature as human beings: their emotions range from cheerful resignation to despair when they consider their fate and find it uncertain.

One of the novel’s primary themes is that neither nature nor human life can be understood perfectly. At times during the voyage, the Pequod’s crewmembers reflect, with feelings ranging from cheerful resignation to despair, on the uncertainty of their fate. Running parallel to that are the doubts of religious faith. Ishmael says “our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.” That implies that complete knowledge of human nature and of God comes only in death. Knowledge is impossible to achieve – ignorance is a condition of life. Ultimately, knowledge is limited. For all the religious, scientific, historical and literary texts relating to the whale and whaling, which Ishmael offers the reader in abundance, the only way to really know anything about what a whale is like is to go whaling oneself, and even then, it is a dangerous and most likely fatal activity, and even then it would be impossible to penetrate the whale’s ultimate mystery. That is true of most things in life.

Although the crew are aware that human knowledge is limited they are always trying to interpret signs in the world around them in attempts to determine their fates. Although Ishmael intimates that after having a lot of experience on merchant ships it was fate that led him to sign up for a whaling ship, at the time of signing up it felt to him as though he was doing it of his own free will. That question of fate weaves its thread through the text.  It is always a question of whether it’s fate that is driving the events of the novel, or whether it is the force of the characters’ will.

Moby Dick is an American novel and there is no doubt about its authenticity as such. However, it goes far beyond that to a universal level that makes it one of the greatest novels ever written in any language. As such, Moby Dick has every claim to be ‘the great American novel’.

What’s your take – do you think Moby Dick is truly the great American novel? Or is there another novel more worthy of this moniker? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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