Skip to Content
Defector Reads A Book

From Hell’s Heart We Blog At Thee: Let’s Chat About ‘Moby-Dick’

Whale stranded at Winterton, 1857. 'This fine specimen of the whale tribe was driven ashore at Winterton by the gales which visited the coast of Norfolk...When the whale found himself upon land he roared loudly, and he struggled most lustily to regain the deep...The colour of the outer coat is dark brown on the back, vanishing off towards the body of a bluish grey. The body is white; also about two feet of the nose and baleen is white; the rest of the outer part is black. We understand that the skin, head, and tail were removed from the carcase for exhibition. The whale is stated to weigh about 25 tons'. From "Illustrated London News", 1857.
The Heritage Collection/Getty Images

Patrick Redford: What would your job on the Pequod be? I’d be a guy who throws big coils of rope around and falls in the ocean pretty early on and is never seen again, purely to serve as a device for Melville to be like, And some sailors are clowns, like this fool, but not me.

Sabrina Imbler: I would be whatever kind of crew member gets to stick both of my hands, Amélie-style, into the vat of spermaceti. I recently got into recreational slimes through TikTok, and spermaceti is the ultimate slime. Lathering up my grabbers with the boys, holding hands in the glistening vat, now that’s the life for me!

Kelsey McKinney: My job would be navigation. I am good at maps and knowing where north is and bad at almost everything else. Navigators, I imagine get to stay mostly inside with the map and I would like that.

Barry Petchesky: I’d be a cuddler. That’s a job, right? Whalers love cuddling.

David Roth: I’d be down in the hold, tending to the stores of salt pork. Periodically the cook comes down talking about how no one appreciates the craft he brings to his whale-steak cookery and I’m just like, “Buddy you are preaching to the choir, no one even knows I’m down here.” Later, I would drown.

PR: I’m glad you brought up the cook, because the two protracted bits involving food—the whale steak and Stubb reading the riot act because someone brought Queequeg ginger tea—are some of the silliest, most 1850s-ass passages in the book, and maybe what I was most struck by upon rereading Moby-Dick was how funny it was from start to like 15 pages from finish. He’s out there doing Hamilton Nolan moves. I remember reading Chapter 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” laughing at Melville just going in and flaying all these poor suckers who drew pictures of whales that he hated, but after a while thinking Good God, this has gone on a long time, I’m ready to get back to the plot, turning the page, seeing “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes,” and laughing so hard it woke my partner up. Did you also hee-hee/hoo-hoo/ha-ha-ha throughout?

BP: That is always what I tell people who are intimidated by it because it’s a “classic”: It’s so fucking funny. It’s shorter than you think and the writing is shockingly modern, even maybe postmodern, and it is absolutely hilarious. Sean correctly identified Melville’s dismissal of manatees as Hamilton-coded: “I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology.”

DR: I was chortling for sure and while I, like Barry, have also talked it up as funny when “preaching the Dick” to skeptical people this was the first time I’d read it in 20 years and it was a relief to be reminded that it is really funny, in a bunch of different ways—there’s Stubb’s berserk motivational trash-talking of the guys rowing his boat, there are some deliriously weird descriptions of places and things, there’s the goofy-pompous expert tone that Ishmael takes on when he’s recontextualizing or making up some weird shit about whales and whaling—and not just funny in the ways that people tell you that classics are Actually Funny. It is an absolutely wild book, totally startling and at war with itself in fascinating ways and featuring some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read, but it will also get you into a hoo-hoo/hee-hee mode.

SI: This was actually my first time reading Moby-Dick—aside from reading an abridged version in fifth grade, a reading experience that gave me the false impression that the book was an overly serious travel diary. I was expecting homoerotic subtones and whale misinformation but I was delighted by how extremely freaking funny the book was. So many phrases or descriptions made me go hee-hee—Flask, alas! was a butterless man!—and I respected how Melville decided that just about anything could be a chapter. Even as the Pequod was spiraling toward its demise, Chapter 122 or “Midnight Aloft—Thunder And Lightning,” which is like four lines of someone rhyming “um” with “rum,” brought levity to the darkest swaths of the book.

KM: On this read, I was enraptured by Melville’s sentences. After reading a lot of mediocre recent novels last year, it was such a joy to return to these long, swirling sentences. There’s a kind of confidence (or perhaps disregard) that Melville has in the reader that allows him to really go off on these gorgeous tangents, and he assumes that you will meet him where he is. I don’t know that it was true every single time, but it was astounding to realize how much books are edited now to make sure you never feel the way you feel on almost every page of Moby-Dick: just, like, drowned in beauty and strangeness and light confusion. 

BP: Everyone share a favorite sentence. “Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living.” Ol’ Herman gets in some good shots on authors throughout.

DR: It is hard to convey the level at which Melville is just hooping in this one. The showpiece sentences are unreal, but there are these little descriptive bits that are by rights throwaway things—here is how deep the water is, here is how this guy looked or seemed, the chowder-related material—that are so tremendous. There’s too many to choose from, but more or less at random here’s a bit from Ishmael about giving himself up to the bigger thing, upon altering his will on the ship: “I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.” That’s how you write a character deciding to say “fuck it,” in my opinion. 

PR: “Though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will.” I’d like to think that if Melville read Defector, his favorite blog would be Some Italy Updates. The weightier ones are great too, but his indignant tone is so funny when applied to low-stakes stuff.

KM: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? 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! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!" God keep thee!!!

SI: “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.” It only feels right to remember this image as we gather today on Valentine’s Day, for I simply cannot imagine a more loving—platonic or otherwise—activity than bathing your hands in the lumpy, unctuous “milk and sperm of kindness” with your bosom-bros who have joined this death cult of a ship with you. O, to have one’s soul cleansed and pores clarified with the boys!

PR: You can’t spell bonhomie without “homie.” DRAB, are we eventually lowering, or at least shifting, our conceit of attainable felicity in 2024???

BP: Even more than on the sentence level, Melville is doing some absolutely wild shit with the concept of a book. Out of nowhere, bam: the chapters now have stage directions, like it’s a play. Then they don’t. Then they do again. Then a chapter is just a song. Then it’s whale facts. I loved how on my toes it kept me: I really did have trouble putting the book down because I wanted to see what this crazy-ass Herman Melville was going to do next.

DR: I wrote about the section Barry’s talking about when I was taking a Melville (and Pynchon!) class in college and it’s my favorite thing in the book, still. A total shot across the bow to the reader, just in terms of resetting expectations they might have re: reading a real ripper of a whaling yarn, and an announcement that they’re getting this, instead. In a consecutive stretch, Melville writes soliloquies, with stage directions, for four characters, and then the musical number, and then the chapter after that is entitled “Moby Dick.” The book is very stop-and-go, I think very much by design—not just because Melville was trying to write a hit while somewhat helplessly being pulled along by the very non-commercial obsessions that light up the rest of the book, although I think that’s one of the really interesting tensions in the book, but because it replicates the rhythms of this kind of voyage. Sometimes you are chasing a whale for work, and it is very urgent and dangerous; sometimes you are daydreaming and talking to yourself while standing watch on top of a mast, and that is also dangerous. Sometimes things are happening, and the rest of the time you just kind of go crazy, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, sometimes by yourself and sometimes alongside everyone else.

KM: One thing I’m desperate to talk about is the epigraphs. I feel like so many books right now are engaging in a trend where they use two epigraphs: one modern and one ancient. Like here are my epigraphs, they are the Bible and Ke$ha, or whatever. Herman Melville, the greatest sicko to ever live, demolished this trend by just starting this book with every quote about a whale he could find. 

BP: There’s a few different lights in which you can read this one quote: “Book! You lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” But however much irony you want to afford it, he was experimenting with the form itself of a novel. And I get the sense contemporary audiences were absolutely not ready for it.

PR: Yeah, the autofictive aspect of it I found interesting as well. I loved the stage directions, and the wild swings back and forth between long passages about the size of a whale’s skull and then what it’s like to row a whale boat as Stubb is going apoplectic, though I think so much of what he was trying to convey was like, I Did This For Real And It Was So Sick. 

DR: When I read the book the first time, it felt important for me to figure out what it was About, like what the whale was, and why Ahab was the way he was. And while I haven’t totally lost the impulse to try to solve stuff like this, I was much more comfortable this time with the idea that the book was about obsession and pursuit and the emotional reality of being pulled along by stuff you can’t control or understand, and not about trying to decode or understand or lord knows stop any of that. Not the various objects of obsession, but the different shapes and dimensions of the act.

SI: I think Melville reminded me that a book can be anything you want it to be. Per Barry’s point, Moby-Dick felt more experimental than many of the modern novels I read that are explicitly marketed as experimental. Each chapter felt like it was in a different font, and almost created the reading sensation of being at sea, like those sailors flung back and forth on ships that cross the Drake Passage. It was a refreshingly powerless experience as a reader, to be fully at the whims of this whale-obsessed man—and I’m not talking about Ahab.

KM: This whole book is a real argument for becoming an absolute fucking pervert about something, allowing it to dominate your life, and giving yourself over fully to it. Whales, man! 

BP: It’s interesting that no one in this book seems to have agency. Ishmael is along for the ride. Ahab is driven by something bigger than him. The one exception is Starbuck. When he’s standing outside Ahab’s door with the gun, debating whether to shoot him, it's really stressful. And the conversation toward the end he has with Ahab, when he seems so close to getting the captain to abandon his madness, was heartbreaking. It’s not just that Ahab is consumed and monomaniacal: it’s that Ahab knows it and still can’t stop himself. “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.”  

DR: Which is kind of classic tragedy stuff, I guess, but you’re right that it has a kind of unexpected emotional weight despite being pretty familiar in the broad strokes. I think this is because Melville takes time to let basically every character with a speaking part try and fail to sort of puzzle this all out—to try to figure out what’s happening to them and why, to the extent that they can. We get to see them realize what is out of their hands, and how far gone it is.

PR: Yeah, it was as if the force of the obsession, the awe-inspiring gravity of one man’s quest to smooch that whale and die trying was so irresistible that even its fundamental insanity was not enough to dissuade anyone but noted Family Man Starbuck from going along for the ride. It is, I think, beautiful and life-affirming simply to be obsessed with something, to grab hold of a live wire and feel your life briefly and gloriously shredded. That’s the plot, but it’s also the book itself.

DR: Which is another layer of autofiction, I think, and points back to Sabrina's completely correct observation of how experimental the book feels despite also feeling so antique. Because Melville was kind of broke, he had a shitty job at a desk and was trying to write a hit adventure story, and while I guess he does that—that book is in there: the story moves, the chapters about the actual whaling pursuits are thrilling and vivid and terrible, you could probably make a pretty fun condensed novel of just those bits—he couldn’t just do that. He’s hooked into something bigger, and it is pulling him, and the stop-and-go stuff, the way he throws in those little HamNo-voice chapters of digression and kind of manic calm, can sometimes feel like him trying and failing to regain control of it himself. For a book that’s so incredibly well-wrought from one sentence to the next, the process and struggle of getting it down and out on the page is kind of right there. You feel it.

SI: He was just a man trying to write the Ultimate Blog!

PR: I was chatting with a friend about the book, and he said that when he read it in college, the instructor said to skip the whale facts parts of the book, which he and I both found to be book-destructive advice. The best bars are in these chapters, where, after listing the Right Whale’s stats in exhaustive detail, he will make some wry little observation that is perfectly crystalline and lovely. I’d make that case that the whale facts are the heart of the book, or at least what he cared about the most. Even if they were more like whale “facts,” though I agree: whale is fish because swims in ocean.

KM: I was kind of obsessed with the pseudoscience of the book. Sabs and I were talking about this yesterday, but it is astounding how often Melville is just riffing with either zero regard for facts or in direct opposition to them. He’s essentially like, “sperm whales are actually bigger than blue whales because in vibe they are large,” which, go off I guess! It’s kind of fun. It’s a novel. Who cares! 

SI: It often felt like the entire plot of the novel was created as an excuse to go ham on whale lore. I, too, was warned that many of the whale facts do not hold up to modern science, but I found their details incredibly charming. It reminded me of a boat tour I took this weekend in a city in Florida, in which the skipper took us around a series of small lakes and told us which house belonged to his kids’ pediatrician, which garage held a Tesla, etc. Similarly, I loved Melville’s deployment of completely arbitrary, hyperlocal whale lore, such as the idea that humpbacks make “more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them” or that the Fin-Back is “a whale-hater, as some men are man-haters.”

BP: We don’t believe Melville actually thought whales were fish, right? So then, what do you think is the purpose of Ishmael thinking that? Pure laughs? Filling in a picture of our narrator as a character?

DR: I don’t, but I think the way he’s kind of like “I’m going to just go with what the Bible says on this one” sets the tone early on. If there’s a choice between printing the facts and printing the legend, he commits pretty thoroughly to the legend. Also it’s funny when someone who doesn’t really know anything starts lecturing you; I imagine even a lot of contemporary readers were like, “Sorry but what are you even on about here.” 

KM: I think he believed whales were friends. 

PR: True, though I think if anyone described any critter to me as “Another retiring gentleman, with a brimstone belly, doubtless got by scraping along the Tartarian tiles in some of his profounder divings,” I’d be like, “Sounds good man.”

DR: “Damn,” I say to Ishmael as he lays all this out, “that’s crazy.” And then I go back to my chowder.

BP: Let’s talk about Queequeg, and maybe specifically the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship. I guess he’s a stock noble-savage character, but he’s super likable, and his weekend getaway with Ishmael at a Massachusetts B&B is very charming.

KM: In college I took a class about early American literature with a Moby-Dick scholar. His name was (no shit) Dr. Kevorkian and he wore a different patterned whale tie to every single class. This meant that the copy I was reading was a critical edition with notes in the back and also (because I’m a monster who writes in every book) riddled with notes from past me. Most of these notes were presumably for an essay that must have been about the Bible, but one of them just said “oh no one bed at the inn!!!!!!” and you know what? She was right. 

SI: If I read Moby-Dick in high school I would have absolutely started a Tumblr to ship Ishmael and Queequeg. Honestly my favorite chapter may have been when they were spooning in bed at the least jolly inn, with Queequeg affectionately throwing his big muscly legs over Ishmael’s presumably small and twinky ones. This odd little honeymoon felt like the only place in the book where there is no fear or malice, only joy and chowder, and as soon as they left the inn I found myself wishing we could return there. Being cozy in the bed almost felt like accessing the divine, or at least a respite from the brutal capitalism of the whaling industry: “For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.” Sure beats being dragged down to the cold belly of the sea!

DR: Everyone thought we weren’t going to get to the snuggling content and then bam, second encore.

PR: The portrayal of Queequeg and the other harpooners was definitely racist in a very old-timey, 1850s way, though what I think Melville was going for by showing the closeness of Ishmael and Queequeg was that the life-affirming power of snuggling, and the death-defying force of rowing a whale boat, are both strong enough forces to overcome the circumstances of birth etc. and that everyone is equal when they’re on a whaling boat because that’s pure living, as opposed to the adulterated, soft landsman lifestyle. 

DR: I think that makes sense. The way that everything that happens on land is kind of abstracted and stilted relative to what happens at sea is, I guess, inevitable given that this is a book about being on A Commercial Whaling Ship That Totally Changed Your Perspective On The World (among other things) but it is striking. There’s just no room for any of that stuff onboard. There’s still plenty of time and space for bullshit, but not the kind that keeps people from seeing other people clearly, and even with some grace.

BP: What happens in New Bedford stays in New Bedford. Roth, you had said before this reread that Moby-Dick is your favorite book of all time. Still feel that way?

DR: I think so, yeah. I read it at a moment in my life as a reader and a budding insufferable person where it kind of broke through a lot of what I’d considered to be The Rules, in a way that upended my understanding of what this kind of thing—reading and writing, for starters—could do or be. There are a few books I read around then that I’ll always love for that reason—I’m thinking of the bit where Paul Auster addresses the reader as himself in City Of Glass, and a couple of the woolier Jim Thompson books—but nothing is like this. I don’t know of another book that is as satisfying in as many different ways, while still feeling so surprising and strange. No one could sit down and try to write A Moby-Dick–Style Book. There isn’t one. This is it. (And also the sentences are so impossibly great. I was tearing up at stuff that wasn’t even that emotional while reading it on the train, just because he was going for and landing such wild stuff.)

PR: I underrated the degree to which this book would make my personality into Guy Who Is Reading Moby-Dick. I was so annoying! It was great! Of all the books I’ve read for DRAB, or, really, all the books I’ve read in a long time, this one consumed me and bracketed my reality way more than any others. It was all I could think about; winter really was the right time to do this one. Isn’t it lovely to read something that meaningfully rocks your shit?

KM: I completely agree. I loved reading this giant weird book in the winter, but it did absolutely become my personality. 

BP: Sabs, as a first-time crew member of the Pequod, did it hit?

SI: You know what, Barry, joining this jolly crew of Moby-Dick readers did make me feel like a very oblivious twink signing up for their first whaling voyage. Not all of our intended Moby-Dick readers made it through to the end of the book, or even made a dent. I myself finished the book this morning on the subway in a desperate race against time to join this DRAB. But I can honestly say it did hit—as I read, I would wander around my apartment in search of my partner to read them a line out loud from the book. And I love to read a book where the good guy wins at the end.

Following the breakout success of Devin the Dugong, Defector has pivoted to a focus on marine mammals. Our new white whale shirt, available in unisex and femme cuts, was drawn by Perry Shall, an artist recently nominated for a Grammy for best recording package. You won’t be Ahab, either; it’s easy to catch. It’s available at the Defector Store.

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter