Moby Dick /Billy Budd by Herman Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“I have written an evil book” Melville wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne after he finished Moby Dick.
Filled with symbolism about God and evil, this long tale shows what happens to men when their hearts get warped and twisted with vengeance over some wound in the past.
“He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” (142). “He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge” (143). “From hell’s heart I stab at thee” (390).
Moby Dick is a white whale, and Melville takes an important chapter to consider the whiteness: “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” (149). As an “object of trembling reverence and awe” He “command[s] worship, at the same time enforce[s] a certain nameless terror” (146).
The pacing is insanely slow, as Melville takes us on an encyclopedic biological tour of the whale. Since the whale represents God throughout the book (white, divine, august, etc.), this shows man’s inevitable obsession with his Creator. But the end is worth it. I think every chapter, maybe every paragraph, alludes to some aspect of theological truth. Predestination and fate are a recurring theme. The main characters hear a sermon on Jonah before embarking on their voyage with Captain Ahab. There is an anti-Communion at the beginning, when Ahab calls his crew to drink and swear death to Moby Dick (130), and an anti-baptism of his harpoon in blood near the end: “I baptize you not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the devil [translated from Latin]” (338).
Ahab’s first mate questions his quest. Why destroy yourself and us with this vengeful quest? Even at the very end he calls him to turn back. But it is far too little, too late.
“All of us are Ahabs” (353). In the end, as with all good books, we stare ourselves in the mirror image of Ahab. The whale took his leg. What has God taken from you, that tempts you to hate Him? How have you pursued God with hostility?
The symbolism in the book isn’t all sound or biblical. The whale is malicious, vengeful, unfair in his predestinating, fating power. Melville called the book evil. I don’t know his personal story, but I get the sense that he identified with Ahab and had a grudge against God. He knew it would only destroy him to fight God, but it seems all he knows to do in retaliation for the wounds he has faced.
The name of Jesus makes one appearance that I could tell, near the end when the mate calls Ahab off from his quest. It goes unheeded as before. Jesus and His atoning redemption of our wounds are utterly absent from the book. Either God will win as you submit to His power, or God will win as you fight Him.
Evil, indeed. Yet a supremely compelling depiction of the human heart before its Maker. I give it a rare 5 out of 5 stars.
This is R.C. Sproul’s favorite work of literature. See his short article on Moby Dick here.
As an aside, I read this out loud to my kids, and it took a long time!
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