The Endless Depths of Moby-Dick Symbolism

The author of & Sons says the Herman Melville classic regularly brings him to tears.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

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Doug McLean

A great herd of readers profess devotion to Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick, but novelists especially seem to love saying they love it. On The Top Ten, a website that lists authors' favorite books, Moby-Dick is cited more often than not (and by writers as dissimilar as John Irving and Robert Coover, Bret Easton Ellis and Joyce Carol Oates). But perhaps they all love a different Moby-Dick. It's been called a whaling yarn, a theodicy, a Shakespeare-styled political tragedy, an anatomy, a queer confessional, an environmentalist epic; because this novel seems to hold all the world, all these readings are compatible and true.

David Gilbert, author of & Sons, is another Melville devotee -- and when he said he wanted to discuss Moby-Dick for this series, I felt sure he'd bring a new, original perspective to the book. He didn't disappoint. In his essay, Gilbert looks directly at the book's shape-shifting form and examines its ability to serve as a personal cipher. In his reading of the novel's magnificent 87th chapter, "The Grand Armada," Melville seems to choose this theme self-consciously: It's a comment, according to Gilbert, on how self-reflective we tend to be when we look out at the world.

In & Sons, Gilbert filters a Karamazovian family saga through the literary sensibility of Nabokov's Pale Fire. To tell the story of A.N. Dyer (a reclusive and enigmatic Great American Novelist) and his three sons, Gilbert employs handwritten notes, a novel-within-a-novel (titled Ampersand), and a deliciously unreliable narrator whose fannish devotion to the Dyer clan undercuts the truthfulness of his presentation of events. Gilbert's other books are Remote Feed and The Normals; his short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and GQ.


David Gilbert: Let's make one thing clear: I have nothing specifically smart to say about Moby-Dick mainly because I can't pretend to understand Moby-Dick. The book is nearly impossible to place, to categorize, to hold without feeling the vertiginous swell of its creation. More than any other book, it fills me with awe and dread. I have read it twice, listened to it once. My first reading was in college and it was a struggle because I was in college and reading Moby-Dick was low on my list of college-worn priorities. But I finished. Or I pretended to. I skipped a fair amount. And then I told people I had read Moby-Dick. That seemed the point. I believe War and Peace was next. I was a big game hunter who only wanted heads to hang in my wood-paneled den. Proust was the equivalent of a bearskin rug.

Ten years later I regretted my ways, and I removed those spines from up high. And so began my second reading of Moby-Dick, and I was quickly embarrassed for that Junior back in college. You cannot read this book for speed. It is designed for the long haul, the chapters never too long, naps seemingly built into the text. It is, dare I say, a voyage. When in doubt, or simply in need of something, the something uncertain, a scratch like the scratch Ishmael feels in those opening lines, instead of the sea I will take to Moby-Dick and turn to a random page and read a few paragraphs out loud, my voice hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish. It gets in your blood. It is your blood.

This chapter satisfies all versions of me, from the sighting of exotic land to the chase of dastardly pirates, but mostly it is the whales, the vast pod straight ahead, their spouting showing "like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis."

It is one of a few books that I have dreamed about -- and dreamed about often: Tashtego falling into the whale's head and Queequeg's heroics; Pip adrift and utterly changed, the strange presence of Fedallah. Moby-Dick is about everything, a bible written in scrimshaw, an adventure spun in allegory, a taxonomy tripping on acid. It seems to exist outside its own time, much like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It is so broad and so deep as to accept any interpretation while also staring back and mocking this man-made desire toward interpretation.

What does it mean? There are so many symbols as to render symbols meaningless. And yet, like Ahab, we insist on plucking the heart of its mystery. As Ishmael says, "And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way." Moby-Dick might as well be that enigmatic doubloon nailed to the main-mast, the prize for anyone who first grasps the white whale.

And maybe, when all is said and done, the book moves me on a more basic level, because I have always loved whales, ever since I was a boy and pushed aside the impossible math of dinosaurs -- 65 million years ago? -- my imagination frustrated by all those bones in need of flesh and skin, my soul crushed by the most awesome aspect of our world, already long gone. Instead I embraced the giants that did exist among us, and fellow mammals too, the blue whale, the right whale, the humpback whale -- Christ, I loved humpback whales -- my room littered with books and books on whales, whale posters on my wall -- the narwhal, the beluga -- and I joined Save the Whales and stuck their sticker on the back window of our Country Squire station wagon, and I fought against Iceland and Japan and their cruel whaling ways, my fight very local and mostly confined within two-thousand square feet on 73rd and Lexington, but I fought nevertheless -- though I never did like the killer whale -- and I cheered on Greenpeace and its Rainbow Warrior. Maybe in my early teens I tittered over the sperm whale and its shameful onanistic shadow, but I certainly did my time in front of the famous diorama at the Natural History Museum -- sperm whale versus giant squid -- my eyes keen to the cheap showmanship of poured fiberglass yet also sinking down into those ultraviolet spheres and imagining a secret world that glowed like velvet in black light. So Moby-Dick, in its baroque manner, speaks to me at ten years old as well as to me at forty-six.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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