I have to admit that I have picked up Moby Dick several times over the years and never been able to read it all the way through. One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year was to read Moby Dick from cover to cover no matter what the cost! I can now finally say that I’ve read Moby Dick from cover to cover. Was it worth it? I would say, absolutely yes!
We live in an age of instant gratification and a lack of imagination. Melville’s classic goes against the grain of both of these “modernisms.” Moby Dick is lengthy, verbose, tangential, and yet he manages to wax amazingly and fascinatingly into the realms of human nature, philosophy, science, history, theology, and numerous other realms. It is a journey in reading that I’ve never experienced before.
It helped me immensely to do two things to persevere through the book. (1) I decided to read only one or two chapters a day and not try to rush through it. (2) I read the book along with the Audible reading by Anthony Heald. Heald masterfully read the book and through his interpretations of cadence and accents of the various characters added immensely to the enjoyment of the plot.
Melville’s use of language, change of pace, colorful and imaginative descriptions, and brilliance in his weaving of a myriad of themes makes the book a masterpiece. It took me a few times in my life to get through the entire book, but now that I have made the journey, not only was it worth it, but I will most definitely make this journey again and again. I am looking forward to reading it again. It’s the type of book that has so much depth in its symbolism, so much creativity, so much to ponder, that it bids you to come back and feast again. It’s no wonder it has been dubbed “The Great American Novel.” A well earned and deserved title by Melville. Its ilk will never likely be written again. I will forever treasure Moby Dick.
Take up Moby Dick and read it slowly, and ponder its truths. It will feed your senses and your soul. I am grateful for this masterpiece of literature. I hope that it will continue to be treasured in a world of quick fixes, fast food, and fads. Melville’s book is a delightful respite for the tranquility of the soul – especially as he touches on the meaning of life. I found it to draw me closer to my own sinfulness and the transcendent holiness and justice of God. What an amazing journey. All I can say is “Thank You” Mr. Melville for writing this treasure, and if you have never read it – take it up and read it. If you have already read it, take it up again and go deeper into its truths and delights.
It seems that every time a writer picks up a pen or turns on his word processor to compose a literary work of fiction, deep in his bosom resides the hope that somehow he will create the Great American Novel. Too late. That feat has already been accomplished and is as far out of reach for new novelists as is Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak or Pete Rose’s record of cumulative career hits for a rookie baseball player. The Great American Novel was written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by Herman Melville. This novel, the one that has been unsurpassed by any other, is Moby Dick.
My personal copy of Moby Dick is a leather-bound collector’s edition produced by Easton Press under the rubric “The Hundred Greatest Books Ever Written.”
Note that the claim here is not that Moby Dick is one of the hundred greatest books written in English, but rather that it is one of the hundred greatest books written in any language. Its greatness may be seen not in its sometimes cumbersome literary structure or its excursions into technicalia about the nature and function of whales (cetology). No, its greatness is found in its unparalleled theological symbolism. This symbolism is sprinkled abundantly throughout the novel, particularly in the identities of certain individuals who are assigned biblical names. Among the characters are Ahab, Ishmael, and Elijah, and the names Jeroboam and Rachel (“who was seeking her lost children”) are given to two of the ships in the story.
In a personal letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne upon completing this novel, Melville said, “I have written an evil book.” What is it about the book that Melville considered evil? I think the answer to that question lies in the meaning of the central symbolic character of the novel, Moby Dick, the great white whale. Melville experts and scholars come to different conclusions about the meaning of the great white whale. Many see this brutish animal as evil because it had inflicted great personal damage on Ahab in an earlier encounter. Ahab lost his leg, which was replaced by the bone of a lesser whale. Some argue that Moby Dick is Melville’s symbol of the incarnation of evil itself. Certainly this is the view of the whale held by Captain Ahab himself. Ahab is driven by a monomaniacal hatred for this creature, this brute that left him permanently damaged both in body and soul. He cries out, “He heaps me,” indicating the depth of the hatred and fury he feels toward this beast. Some have accepted Ahab’s view that the whale is a monstrous evil as that of Melville himself.
Other scholars have been convinced that the whale is not a symbol of evil but the symbol of God Himself. In this interpretation, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is not a righteous pursuit of God but natural man’s futile attempt in his hatred of God to destroy the omnipotent deity. I favor this second view. It was the view held by one of my college professors—one of the five leading Melville scholars in the world at the time I studied under him. My senior philosophy research paper in college was titled “The Existential Implications of Melville’s Moby Dick.” In that paper, which I cannot reproduce in this brief article, I tried to set forth the theological structure of the narrative.
I believe that the greatest chapter ever written in the English language is the chapter of Moby Dick titled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Here we gain an insight into the profound symbolism that Melville employs in his novel. He explores how whiteness is used in history, in religion, and in nature. The terms he uses to describe the appearance of whiteness in these areas include elusive, ghastly, and transcendent horror, as well as sweet, honorable, and pure. All of these are descriptive terms that are symbolized in one way or another by the presence of whiteness. In this chapter Melville writes,
But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind. Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?
He then concludes the chapter with these words: “And of all these things, the albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”
If the whale embodies everything that is symbolized by whiteness—that which is terrifying; that which is pure; that which is excellent; that which is horrible and ghastly; that which is mysterious and incomprehensible—does he not embody those traits that are found in the fullness of the perfections in the being of God Himself?
Who can survive the pursuit of such a being if the pursuit is driven by hostility? Only those who have experienced the sweetness of reconciling grace can look at the overwhelming power, sovereignty, and immutability of a transcendent God and find there peace rather than a drive for vengeance. Read Moby Dick, and then read it again.
*Article adapted from Table Talk, August 1, 2011 (ligonier.org.)
*”The Great American Novel: Moby Dick and Unparalleled Theological Symbolism” by Jason Duesing
Of all the great books, why read and reflect on Moby-Dick?
Nathaniel Philbrick gives one compelling answer: “Reading Moby-Dick, we are in the presence of a writer who spent several impressionable years on a whaleship, internalized everything he saw, and several or so years later, after internalizing Shakespeare, Hawthorne, the Bible, and much more, found the voice and the method that enabled him to broadcast his youthful experiences into the future” (Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? [Penguin Books, 2013], 70).
Herman Melville’s ‘broadcast’ is worthy of reading and reflection, not only for its content and characters, but also for its construction. It is The. Great. American. Novel. For the Christian reader, it is also valuable for what R. C. Sproul identified as its “unparalleled theological symbolism” (R. C. Sproul, “The Unholy Pursuit of God in Moby-Dick,” Tabletalk, August 1, 2011).
In my own reading of Moby-Dick, I attempt to read it for what it is, a work of art. In this short reflection, therefore, I ask and answer three questions I’ve developed, to help me as a Christian, guide my observation of works of art, whether in painted, composed, or written forms—and regardless if the art was specifically created to illuminate truth revealed in the Bible or truth revealed in creation (See Jason G. Duesing, “The Christian, Art, and Rediscovering John the Baptist,” For the Church, October 10, 2019).
How Does Moby-Dick Glorify God?
To read Moby-Dick is to encounter many new areas of knowledge that appear tangential or skippable. There are chapters that cover biology, geography, nautical intricacies, and more information about whales and the use of whales in the 19th century than you might imagine.
It is said, if you want to learn about 19th century sewer systems, read Les Misérables; if you want to know all there is to know about whales, read Moby-Dick (For more introduction to the reading of Moby-Dick see Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick?; R. C. Sproul, “The Unholy Pursuit of God in Moby-Dick”; James Hamilton, “Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’” For His Renown, June 14, 2011; Connor Grubaugh, “James and Melville, Two American Minds,” First Things, February 2, 2018).
Yet, while in the middle of reading, it may seem tangential, the details all serve a purpose—Melville is driving you toward a final battle with the White Whale, and one cannot appreciate the magnitude of that battle, in full, without first going on his instructional journey.
Likewise, a comparison can be made to how we read the Bible, especially the Old Testament. To read the Bible is to encounter many new areas of knowledge that might appear tangential or skippable. There are chapters on genealogy, indices of laws, detailed descriptions of movements of people, lengthy poetry and prophecy—instructions we may not fully understand.
Yet, when “reading through the Bible,” while some parts may seem tangential, they do serve an ultimate purpose. God, through his authors, is driving you toward his Christ—and one cannot appreciate the magnitude of his life, death, and resurrection, in full, without first going on this instructional journey.
The reading of the Great American Novel glorifies God as it reminds the believer of The. Greatest. Story. and reminds regularly that something greater than Melville speaks, rules, and reigns.
What is Good, True, and Beautiful About this Work?
Melville’s experience and knowledge of the world about which he writes points to much that is good, true, and beautiful. Whether it is the depiction of the relationship between friends and shipmates, the telling of the intricacies of biology and the effects of the fall on creation, or the sublime portrait of a beautiful sea, Moby-Dick resonates because it echoes much of what the reader knows is good, true, and beautiful.
Consider even the trivial description Melville gives of Nantucket chowder served on the eve of Ishmael’s departure:
“It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt …. [W]e despatched it with great expedition” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 15).
The reader can resonate (and salivate) with the author’s care for presenting one of the main character’s last meals on land as a good and beautiful thing.
Further, there is the concluding example of the chief mate, Starbuck, who functions as a voice of conscience for the crew and in contrast to the deranged captain. Even after voicing opposition and a desire to abandon the fool’s errand of chasing the White Whale, Starbuck loyally serves. Near the tragic end, after the famous cry is made of “There she blows!—there she blows!” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 133) and a three day chase ensues, Starbuck murmurs to himself reflecting on his choices, “I misdoubt me that I disobey by God in obeying [Ahab]!” This leads to one last moment of courage as Starbuck pleads, “Oh! Ahab, not too late is it, even now, the third day to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 135).
Starbuck’s lent hand is not returned and all is soon lost, but even in the telling, Melville’s story allows the Christian to see the truth of the gracious presence of the human conscience that leaves no one with an excuse (Rom 2:15).
*The article above is adapted from Jason Duesing’s article, “The Great American Novel: Moby-Dick and Unparalleled Theological Symbolism.” Jason Duesing serves as the academic Provost and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He came to MBTS after serving for more than a decade on the administrative leadership team and faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Duesing earned his Ph.D. in Historical Theology and Baptist Studies from Southwestern Seminary in 2008. He is the author of several books including Mere Hope, Henry Jessey, First Freedom, and Seven Summits in Church History. Duesing’s entire article can be read in the May 8, 2020 issue of Credo Magazine (credomag.com).