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Thread: Having a problem with MOBY DICK...

  1. #1

    Having a problem with MOBY DICK...

    And I suppose it isn't really that much of a problem as it's sending me for a philosophical loop...

    Hi, my name's Patrick and this is my first post on this forum. I joined so I could specifically ask you guys about this query that I have, and I would love to know what you think on the subject.

    Ok. First words of Moby Dick are "Call me Ishmael." Everybody knows that. Now I've been going crazy over this book lately. I read Nathaniel Philbrick's 'In the Heart of the Sea' and enjoyed it immensely, and I've been watching the film versions of the book (the great Bradbury adapted film with Gregory Peck and the not nearly-as-good version with Patrick Stewart). I watched these both before I began really digging my teeth into the book, and one thing began to cross my mind, "how the hell are we as an audience privy to the goings-on in Ahab's aft cabin when Ishmael isn't there?" I didn't think much of this after I watched the films until...

    ...I got to Chapter XXXVII-Sunset (absolutely beautiful, by the way), which is essentially an either spoken or internal monologue by Ahab to himself in his cabin. Yet it is told in first person, like Ishmael's narration up until this point. The next two chapters are similar in format, this time centering around Starbuck and Stubbs, respectively. Also, I noticed that in these chapters, Melville began to use, for the first time in the novel, if I'm not mistaken, what seem to be stage directions, as if he's writing a play. Indeed, in Chapter XL-Midnight, Forcastle, it almost takes the form of a scene from a play, with the dialogue of the sailors.

    What seemed to me an iron-clad form that Melville had established at the beginning of his novel, all of a sudden seems to have lost it's rigidity. If the story is, as everyone says it is, told from Ishmael's perspective and narration, how are we privy to these private moments that Ishmael is not? How does Melville justify going into the psyches of other characters and showing us scenes that would not be witnessed by Ishmael?

    Any ideas? Any help? I've searched for this online, but I cannot find anything. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter, but it's become a slight obsession with me. The only conclusion I can draw is that Moby Dick, as a novel on the whole, is not told from Ishmael's perspective, but from an omniscient narrator (presumably Melville himself, considering how obsessed he was with his interpretation of the sea) who selectively enters into the minds of his characters and speaks through them. In that sense, the story is not from Ishmael's perspective, but of Melville's perspective of multiple perspectives (mainly Ishmael's). Thoughts? Where away?

    Thanks and heyo!

    pat
    Last edited by thestagefighter; 11-13-2010 at 01:18 PM.

  2. #2
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    He does not, neither he needs to do. It's a narrative trick to claim first hand witness to events to give it a apparence of reality and not fiction, not a real thing. Inside Ishmael narrative there is even a chapter with a dramatic dialogue, due the ammount of different perspectives and techniques Melville applies. It is surprising that there is not a "blurblue" chapter told from Moby's point of view.

  3. #3
    So would you still consider the story told from Ishmael's perspective then? And a chapter told from Moby Dick's point of view would have been amazing. If only... "Blurblue" is over my head though. Just Moby's perspective of a blurred blue ocean as he swims through it?

  4. #4
    Registered User TacoButt's Avatar
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    Hey there, Stagefighter...

    I am RIGHT where you are in this novel and thought the exact same thing.

    My thought when I got to the chapters you've mentioned is that Melville went to a play while writing M.D. and thought, "I am going to incorporate some dramatic techniques into my novel. Some theatrical soliloquies and choruses are just what this story needs!" and lost his narrative focus.

    But giving Melville the benefit of the doubt, I have developed a hunch (we'll see how it plays out as I continue reading the novel).

    In spite of the shifts in narrative perspective, I think that actually we are STILL hearing Ishmael's account. He is sort of putting on a "puppet show" for the reader by staging the characters in these dramatic idioms to a purpose.

    By "theatricalizing" the characters, Ishmael is the adopting the role of the playwright. He sets the stage, he chooses the settings, his voice and perspective intones the characters' dialogue and he, therefore, presents us with the allegorical elements of the story rather than a more objective or "journalistic" approach.

    Even before the chapters mentioned in your original post, I sensed an oddly synthetic sort of story-telling from Ishmael. As they prepare to board the Pequod, Queequig and Ishmael see mysterious apparitions, haunting prophets and other "unreal" aspects which to me feel somewhat like interpretive markers to pay attention to Ishmael's allegorical themes.

    He's "stacking the deck" (but I do not fault him or Melville for that). In fact, I rather appreciate that the "true events" of the story take a subordinate role to the mythological.

    All this makes me curious about Ishmael himself. Who is he REALLY? He can't just be a seaman who has been too long for the journey. He has way too much vision and depth and education to be a simple merchant sailor who stumbled aboard a whaling vessel.

    Is my thinking sound on this stuff?

    Anyway thanks for posting and hope to talk more about this fascinating book.

    Eric

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    I also thought this about the story, but just assumed at this point that it actually wasn't a completely first person narrative from Ishmael's point-of-view, but a novel from several points of view. That up until this point it was only Ishmael's was just how Melville thought best to convey the story.

    I think this radical change (among others, such as switching to drama, or pure dialogue) is something that makes the novel great. This kind of experimentation was unprecedented when Melville did it, which is one of the reasons it was so long before it was appreciated. An artist being "ahead of his time" may have never been more apt than in Melville's case.

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Isn't Ishmael meant to be unreliable or something?

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    Quote Originally Posted by kelby_lake View Post
    Isn't Ishmael meant to be unreliable or something?
    I'm pretty sure, yes. During a lot of the encyclopedic parts he admits that he is not the best authority on what he discusses (kind of makes you think what else he may be leaving out/embellishing in the narrative). He also rejects what are established facts of the time--he rejects the idea that the whale is not a fish, but a mammal, even though it is pretty much scientific fact. His basic argument comes down to that a whale lives under water, and looks like a fish, so it's a fish. This also detracts from his credibility, at least it did to me.

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    Actually, Melville views of biology are not because Ishmael was unreliable, but until that period there was a great chasm between biologist (the moderm classification had only 100 years or so and was not exactly taught in schools), Darwin book was the first big scientic treatise to be "popular"... It was either the knowledge of layman (sailors) or reference to biblical jonas...

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    It's not a "normal" novel and Melville was being playful/ experimental. I like the idea that we could have had part of it from the whale's point of view. It's a book that is greater than the sum of its parts and certainly can be read several times.

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