Melville's Cetology in Moby Dick

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of those books that readers often give up in despair. And, apparently, it’s often the chapters on whaling that do it. I can’t remember where I gave up the first time but I’ve just finished one of those chapters, the first one, Cetology, Melville’s brief and inexhaustive, yet exhausting “systemized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera.” Sounds like a fun read, doesn’t it? Where others stop reading altogether I’ll stop briefly to let you know what’s up.

As far as plot-avoiding chapters in incredibly long classic-fiction goes, Cetology isn’t so bad. Melville is usually very entertaining. And there’s at least some foreshadowing of how our first meeting with the majestic and formidable whale will play out. By the way, the whale, Melville will have you know, is definitely not a mammal, but is, in fact, “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” You shouldn’t have given up so soon SuperBruinsMan.

I’m going to take a guess and say that Melville wanted this chapter to serve as the curtain that falls between acts. The exuberance of the first chapters has soured. Elijah has prophesied, Ahab has appeared and the crews dreams are getting weird. The stage setting is done, or maybe, the first act hasn’t yet begun. Anyway, things are moving now.

And the exuberant first chapters – really fun. They have an excitement and a love of thrills and novelty. Not counting the depression-fueled mania that generates them. The joy described in the opening chapters by our famous narrator, Ishmael, is sort of twofold. Firstly, there’s his joy of escaping his Manhattan depression and a certain thrill knowing he’ll embark on a three-year adventure. For a man who has “the problem of the universe revolving inside him” the greatest thrill probably comes from having a course set for you for three years. Secondly, a sort of wistful joy that comes in the unhappy ending that will befall Ahab and his ship (thanks a lot accompanying map, like, worst spoiler ever). The whole thing has a real lovely and comic fuel to it.

But like I said it’s fueled by depression and there’s a real doom and gloom to it. But even when Ishmael is being the best narrator ever and actually pointing out the symbols of death around him he seems to do it all with a wink. Like it’s only just a game.

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