A Sea of Memory
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is certainly the story of a man’s quest for meaning. Ahab is frequently said to be a tragic character seeking revenge on the White Whale, because he believes that he is destined to do it, that there is somehow more at work than random chance in these events. But as captivating as this story is, the book itself spends a significant amount of time focused more within the mind of the narrator known simply as Ishmael. It therefore seems impossible to categorize this work as simply a novel, because doing so would dismiss many of the chapters that have no place in a typical novel. The story Ishmael tells the reader is in fact his own quest to mentally reassemble the events of the tragedy he experienced in Ahab’s crew, and apply what meaning he can to them, making this story much more than a novel.
From the very start of the book, Ishmael addresses the reader directly as “you,” but it seems that he is often actually addressing himself. The reader cannot even be certain that Ishmael is the true name of the narrator, but it does not seem to matter, as the story is almost certainly written more for Ishmael’s benefit than anyone else’s. He explains to the reader that he goes to sea as a sort of deathless suicide that allows him to isolate himself from the rest of the world. He writes, “There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me” (3). He then goes on to list many examples of man’s fascination with the sea, suggesting that people like to be “as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling,” (4) as though the sea is a way of looking at one’s own mortality. The amount of time he spends explaining this suggests that he is rationalizing it to himself. He does not begin his story by saying much of anything about himself or his past as most other narrators do; he just explains why he chose to go to on this voyage. He says he usually leaves on a voyage when he finds himself stopping outside coffin warehouses and following funerals in the streets. This fascination with death and mortality is certainly not normal for most people, no matter how hard he tries to convince the reader, and therefore himself, that it is. About half-way through the book, Ishmael writes, “For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee there! Push not oft from that isle, thou canst never return!” (299) This can certainly be read as regret. Despite his attempts to rationalize his decision to sail with Ahab, he here comes to the conclusion that he has made a mistake. This does not seem to be advice to the reader, but actually the self-scolding of a man haunted by memories and regret.
Ishmael spends most of the middle portion of the book switching between narrative and reflection, but both are key parts to the story of Ishmael, not as a chronicler, but as a self-explorer. Once he moves past the exposition, which is mostly the more pleasant memories of meeting his friend, Queequeg, the story loses its linear writing style. Perhaps Ishmael found the beginning easy enough to think about, but once he begins writing about Ahab and his quest for Moby Dick, the events become more painful to remember. The passage of time in this middle section is unclear, as though Ishmael himself does not really remember how long each part of the journey took. He begins including chapters that are entirely about whales. He considers them from a biological perspective, an artistic perspective, a symbolic perspective, any area of knowledge he has, in order to make what is otherwise an elusive monster easier to understand. The chapter entitled “Cetology,” one of the longest in the book, is the first major section of this kind. He writes at the beginning of this chapter that before saying anything about what happened to him in Ahab’s crew, he would like to bring a little order to the story, because “at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensible to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow” (145). He then classifies whales at length, using books as an analogy. This need to create order is recognized as a very human trait, seen in the way we very carefully organize books, which are themselves used to organize knowledge. Ishmael’s motivation for writing this chapter is the need to create some order out of the chaos of Ahab’s quest. He needs some way to organize his thoughts, and so he organizes whales, the very creatures that killed all the people who would become important to him in this story. Perhaps by ordering them, he can better understand them and therefore understand everything that happened. He spends a large part of the book just describing how whales are killed, exactly how they die, and how the whalers go about using the different parts of its body, again illustrating a fascination with death. While recalling the events of the story, he continues to pause to think about the whale from a purely reflective perspective, drawing on whatever facts he has to anchor these memories to some kind of meaning.
After his attempts to reconstruct these events in a way that he can better understand them, Ishmael seems at a loss for meaning at the end of his reflections, demonstrating that not everything has a reason, no matter how much the mind tries to create it. The writing style begins another change as the climax of the book approaches. The reflective, informative chapters disappear, and the narrative once again becomes a visually descriptive series of events more typical of other novels. The imagery of these events is much more vivid, as though these memories are clearer in his mind. After all the time Ishmael spent writing intellectually about whales, he can no longer delay writing about the tragic encounter with Moby Dick, memories that most likely haunt him. It is worth noting that, though Ishmael has never been a central player in any of the memories that make up this story, he hardly even mentions himself in these last few chapters. He is not telling the story of what happened to him; he is relating what he saw and what he heard around him as he remembers it. He is unwilling to place himself in these events and must remain an observer for his own protection. Most striking about this ending is that, despite his attempts at constructing some sort of meaningful story out of these memories, he is still left with a sense of hopelessness. Of the ship that rescues him, the lone survivor, he writes, “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after his missing children, only found another orphan” (625). His use of the word “devious” is particularly telling. It could be referring to the wandering, unordered course of the Rachel, suggesting that there is no significance in his survival while everyone else died, because it was only chance that he was rescued. It could also be read as scheming or conniving, suggesting that Fate has somehow decided that Ishmael must live with the memories of this event, knowing that not a single other person exists who can tell his story. Ishmael himself may not be certain which interpretation is the better one, but either way, he is still left with his memories and no hope of ever understanding the meaning of these events. He is either looking for meaning that simply does not exist, or he is grasping at an idea that is out of his reach of understanding.
The exploration of one man’s own mind is as much a story as the quest for the White Whale in Moby-Dick. Ishmael is not relating his experiences to be read as a novel. He is sifting through his memories, reconstructing them with knowledge and order in a vain attempt to bring some sense of meaning to them. His quest is to find a way of facing himself as the lone survivor of a tragic voyage, without anchor in a sea of memory.