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Moby Dick
Herman Melville
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1851



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Frans Kellendonk

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad


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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.

Ishmael concludes "The Whiteness of the Whale" by telling us that "of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol" (p. 212). But what do "these things" amount to? It would seem that, for Ishmael, whiteness represents above all his own inescapable uncertainties. How are we then to read the question that follows, ending the chapter: "Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?" (p. 212) Does Ishmael believe that, with this analysis of whiteness and its potential meanings, he has explained the allure of Moby Dick? Is it not, after all, Ahab's more active, antagonistic obsession with the meaning of things, rather than Ishmael's, that is manifested in the hunt? Ishmael asserts that Ahab
"piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down" (p. 200). An important difference between Ishmael's and Ahab's searches for meaning is that, for Ahab, its elusiveness is not simply troubling but a source of torment; bottomless mystery is simply unacceptable. The loss of his leg can be considered merely a physical instance of the malevolence Ahab senses in the world's inscrutability. In one of the novel's most resonant metaphors, Ahab compares the visible world to "pasteboard masks," beneath which lies, perhaps, an ultimate truth—"If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough" (p. 178). Ahab believes that knowledge of Moby Dick, only achievable through literal confrontation, would give him access to a reality beyond human comprehension. Yet he may find nothing there but a void.

Ishmael approaches the possibilities for knowledge more contemplatively. In lamenting the failure of visual artists to accurately represent the whale, Ishmael concludes that, because of its features and habitat, "there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like" (p. 289). To get close enough to the whale, "you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him" (p. 289). Is Ishmael suggesting that Ahab's desire for some kind of ultimate truth carries with it the risk of death? The novel's conclusion seems to support this idea. Perhaps Ishmael survives because, although he is just as attuned as Ahab to the elusiveness of truth, his inability to grasp it has not turned into self-consuming madness. At the same time, the novel complicates any simple distinction between Ahab and Ishmael (and, by implication, Ahab and the reader). Late in the novel, the carpenter attaches a vise to Ahab's leg in the process of repairing his broken peg leg, prompting Ahab to say, "I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man" (p. 512). In his need to apprehend truth in some form that is independent of the ever shifting perspective of the individual, how different is Ahab from Ishmael?

The novel poses the same problem for the reader that the white whale does for Ishmael and Ahab: both resist all-encompassing, conclusive characterizations. Moby-Dick is so capacious and multifaceted that broad statements about its meaning seem at best tentative, at worst absurdly reductive. At the conclusion of "Cetology," Ishmael reminds us that his effort to relate everything known about whales remains unfinished; he then goes so far as to say that the "whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught" (p. 157). Melville's readers are well served by thinking the same of their own interpretations. (from: www.penguinputnam.com)

bookweb    
BOOKS BY HERMAN MELVILLE:

The Confidence Man
1857
Male, female, deft, fraudulent, constantly shifting: which of the "masquerade" of passengers on the Mississippi steamboat Fidele is "the confidence man"?
ON HERMAN MELVILLE'S BOOKSHELF

The Bible
40 different authors, ca. 1450 B.C. - ca. 95 A.D.
King James, for example.

Macbeth
William Shakespeare, 1606
Macbeth's tragedy is that of a good, brave and honourable man turned into the personification of evil by the workings of unreasonable ambition.

Hamlet
William Shakespeare, 1602
When Hamlet's mother remarries shortly after his father's death he's suspicious. And when his father's ghost tells him that he was murdered by the queens's new husband, Hamlet swears to take his revenge.

King Lear
William Shakespeare, 1605
King Lear, the protagonist and central figure of this tragedy, is a proud and stubborn man. Because of his lack of good judgment, Lear loses his power and is humiliated by two of his daughters, whom he had trusted.

The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
The tale of a passionate woman in 17th-century Boston who challenges the system of moral authority and places belief in the higher law of her own heart.

Paradise Lost
John Milton, 1667
'Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe...' In Paradise Lost, Milton produced a poem of epic scale, conjuring up a vast, awe-inspiring cosmos and ranging across huge tracts of space and time. And yet, in putting a charismatic Satan and naked Adam and Eve at the center of this story, he also created an intensely human tragedy on the Fall of Man.

Two Years Before the Mast
Richard Henry Dana Jr., 1840
Richard Henry Dana is only nineteen when he abandons the patrician world of Boston and Harvard for an arduous voyage among real sailors, amid genuine danger.

Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex
Owen Chase, 1821
In 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex, thousands of miles from home in the South Pacific, was rammed by an angry sperm whale. The Essex sank, leaving twenty crew members floating in three small boats for ninety days. The incident was the Titanic story of its day, and provided the inspiration for Melville's Moby-Dick.

Sartor Resartus: the Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh
Thomas Carlyle, 1833-1834
A fictitious editor retails the theories of an equally fictitious German professor who has come to the conclusion that human institutions and morals are only clothes to shield us from nothingness, clothes that can be changed as the whims of the age or fashion dictate.

Moby Dick
1851
The Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod, spirals the globe in search of Moby Dick, the mythical white whale of the Southern Oceans. Driven by the obsessive revenge of Captain Ahab, the crew and the outcast Ishmael find themselves caught up in a demonic pursuit, which leads inexorably to an apocalyptic climax.
WHAT TO READ AFTER MOBY DICK?

OBSESSION AND SELF-DESTRUCTION
Beyond Sleep
Willem Frederik Hermans, 1966
A gripping tale of a man approaching breaking point set beyond the end of the civilised world: a modern classic of European literature.

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad, 1898
Seaman Marlowe journeys deep into the heart of colonial Africa, where he encounters Kurtz, an idealist crazed and depraved by his power over the natives. The meeting prompts Marlowe to reflect on the darkness at the heart of all men.

Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner, 1936
Narrated by Quentin Compson, the suicide in The Sound and the Fury, this is the tale of Thomas Sutpen, a poor White who dreams of founding a dynasty. His refusal to accept his wife' s Negro blood initiates a bloody train of events to create a vision of doom of the American South.

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy, 1985
Recounting the adventures of a young man from Tennessee, "The Kid", who has drifted to Texas in the 1840s, this is an apocalyptic novel and mythic vision of a blood-red Early West.

PHILOSOPHICAL 'BILDUNGSROMANS'
Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison, 1952
A black man's search for success and the American dream leads him out of college to Harlem and a growing sense of personal rejection and social invisibility.

The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, 1924
The story of Hans Castorp, a modern everyman who spends seven years in an Alpine sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, finally leaving to become a soldier in World War I.

Justine
Marquis de Sade, 1791
Justine is the woeful story of a chaste, virtuous woman who is shown in the most graphic and vile ways that such virtue is rewarded only with suffering in the world outside convent walls.

STRANGE ADVENTURES AT SEA
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
Edgar Allan Poe, 1838
Poe's only book-length narrative, recounting his Nantucket-born hero's adventures, misadventures, and discoveries, and his survival of shipwreck and capture by cannibals, as he journeys toward the South Pole.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne, 1869? - 70?
French naturalist Dr Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster, only to discover instead the Nautilus, a self-contained world built by its enigmatic captain.

[In de bovenkooi]
J.M.A. Biesheuvel, 1972
Stories.

Middle Passage
Charles Johnson, 1990
In 1830, seeking to escape an unwanted marriage, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave, becomes a stowaway aboard 'The Republic', unaware that the ship is a slave clipper bound for West Africa.

Typee / Omoo
1846 / 1847

The Piazza Tales
1856
Six of the author's best short stories, including two adventures, a classic mystery tale of mutiny and rescue, a satire and a series of allegorical sketches.
Billy Budd, Sailor
1924 (posthumous)

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