Alex's Reviews > Moby-Dick; or, the Whale

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale by Herman Melville
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It's about a whale eventually. Before that it's a gay romantic comedy. "In our hearts’ honeymoon," says Ishmael, "lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair." If you never made it past page 100, because you were assigned this in high school and it was boring, you might wonder where the whale even is. Where's this majestic tome everyone's yelling about?

About a quarter in, captain Ahab shows up raving about Moby-Dick and the book takes this intense lurch into legend, and it feels like a pretty radical change of direction here. Ahab completely takes over, a character of Shakespearean primal force: "Ahab never thinks; he feels, feels, feels." Melville wasn't a careful planner at the best of times, but something else happened to him as he was writing this book, and here it is:

dude's name is literally "hawt & horny"

It's Nathaniel Hawthorne, the master of metaphor himself, whose relationship with Melville happened to coincide with the writing of Moby-Dick, and whose influence was so deep that Melville dedicated the book to him. So Melville's over here writing some kind of Robinson Crusoe slash fic, he meet cutes Hawthorne, and the next thing you know...

"to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme"

We have our mighty theme. And look, I know, you're not really used to whales being scary, right? You've gone on a whole boat trip just trying to get a peek at one. It surfaced for like two seconds 100 yards away and everyone was like ooh, so majestic. Pretending like we're all not bored as fuck. You might feel the same way when Melville spends seven chapters in a row talking about the physiognomy of sperm whale heads. But he's doing a Jaws here, withholding the reveal, building suspense, and by the time the whale actually appears - 30 pages before the end - you know exactly what that head is capable of. This is one of the best battle scenes in literature.

Anyway the thing is that you gotta remember that in 1860, nobody knew shit about whales. Here - think of the whale like the rapper Ice Cube. Back in the NWA days, he created a scary, unknowable being of immense power and danger - a thing most of us had never seen in real life. Now he's recast himself as the star of "Are We There Yet?" He's cuddly now, and whales are on bumper stickers about saving. But once upon a time, both represented the implacable unknown.

the symbol you love to hate

The implacable unknown, and obsession, and futility and mortality and - and - like all the best metaphors, the whale means anything you need him to. Including, by the way, sperm. Because while the book becomes more mighty and more weighty, it never becomes any less gay at all. “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long," Ishmael chants: "I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it!" Did your high school English teacher tell you to grow up, it's not that kind of sperm? It is that kind of sperm.

Top Ten Metaphors
10. Tigers (Borges & Cortazar, 1900s)
9. Scylla & Charybdis (Odyssey by Homer, 1000 BCE)
8. The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin, 1972)
7. Carrie (Stephen King, 1974)
6. The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne, 1850)
5. Voltron
4. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, 1991)
3. Gregor Samsa (Metamorphosis by Kafka, 1915)
2. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
1. Moby-Dick (Melville, 1851)

Hawthorne's influence made Moby-Dick deeper but not less gay, because Melville was in love with Hawthorne. “Whence come you, Hawthorne?" says one of his letters to him. "By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine.” And what happens next is Hawthorne moves across the state and they kindof stop talking. What happened? Did someone's wife catch them making out? Or was it just a crush? We have nothing to indicate Hawthorne's feelings; Melville burned all his letters. Maybe it was one-sided. Maybe Hawthorne was the white whale.

And that's one of the wonderful things about Moby-Dick for me: Melville has Trojan Horse'd the Great American Novel. Dude wrote DICK right on the cover of the book and no one got it. Still, to this day, my Penguin intro by Nathaniel Philbrick never once mentions how incredibly gay it is. Once again: It is that kind of sperm.


Look, you have this sense of Melville as ponderous, and he can be, but he's also funny as hell. He's like Shakespeare, who was a massive influence: if it feels like it might be wordplay, it always definitely is. Here's a thing he does right in the first chapter of the book, he goes

In this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim).

The Pythagorean maxim in question is "avoid beans;" Melville's making a fart joke. When he talks about squeezing sperm, how dumb do you think he'd have to be in order to not realize what he's writing? And furthermore Billy Budd, which doesn't even make sense if it isn't gay. And where I'm going here is that this isn't just a mighty book that sortof sounds gay: it's a mighty gay book. It's by a gay man. Even if we leave Hawthorne out of it, between Melville and Walt Whitman, the foundation of American literature is largely gay.

I mean, not to read too much into it. It's a book about a whale. But we should be clear that the whale is gay.
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Reading Progress

August 12, 2011 – Started Reading
August 16, 2011 – Shelved
August 16, 2011 – Shelved as: 2011
August 21, 2011 – Shelved as: reading-through-history
August 21, 2011 – Finished Reading
September 9, 2013 – Shelved as: great-american-novels
December 29, 2013 – Shelved as: top-100
January 2, 2015 – Shelved as: rth-lifetime
March 3, 2015 – Shelved as: early-american-lit
September 12, 2017 – Shelved as: farts
August 4, 2018 – Shelved as: dick-lit

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Hey, I saw that the 2011 TV adaptation was just released on Netflix streaming today.

Alex Oh nice! I will totally watch that. Heads up play, Ciddy

message 3: by Cindy (new)

Cindy No worries, Alez. Ciddy Cent heads-up play #2: everyone is talking about you over in the Speakeasy.

Jennifer YAY, ALEX!!!! Welcome to the club, I knew a do-over would be a good thing.

message 5: by Cindy (new)

Cindy cetacean lover.

message 6: by Cindy (new)

Cindy BTW, Alex, this is for you:

Alex Ah ha, that shit is awesome.

message 8: by Jayme (last edited Aug 30, 2011 09:56AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Jayme Your review ALMOST makes me want to reread this piece of crap. Almost.

And it's a good thing we have you to let us know about that most excellent fart joke that I missed when I read this at 17.

Alex Maybe if you read more Moby Dick you'd know how to spell "your" better. SHAAAAAAMMMMMME.

message 10: by Jayme (new) - rated it 1 star

Jayme Don't know what you're talking about.

message 11: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars


message 12: by Jayme (new) - rated it 1 star

Jayme Totally snorted in real life when I read that. You really have to start taking screenshots for you grandkids or something. Also, don't you have to have kids before you have grandkids? Better get cracking.


That would require you and Kirs procreate...unless you are going to begin adopting monkeys and lemurs. I hear they are excellent readers!

Jennifer Jayme wrote: "Don't know what you're talking about."

I totally saw it too!!! Alex is not crazy!

message 15: by Jenni (new) - added it

Jenni lmao this review made me laugh! i'm hoping i'll get a chance to read it. thanks for the words.

Nocturnalux It's been a long, long time since I read this one and I wonder, was it gayer than Billy Budd?

message 17: by Nadine (new)

Nadine Jones Fantastic review! I actually want to read Moby Dick now!! (Not to worry, the feeling will pass. Billy Budd scarred me for life, I'm 100% off Melville.)

message 18: by Lynette (new)

Lynette Koh Webster Ok, I've tried twice and still could not get into this book. Do you have any tips on unlocking the fascination that has grabbed several readers? I mean, I'm not a man and I don't know my nautical terms. In my youth I could not get into 'Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea' but in my 30s, I understood it easily. But this one...? Not being sexist or anything, but does this book appeal more to men?

message 19: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Ha! That's a really interesting question, Lynette. There certainly aren't any women in it, not in a meaningful way.

As a man, of course, I know all nautical terms, along with "plumbing" and how to ride a horse.

How far have you gotten? Because it does take this fairly radical term once they get rolling on the Pequod.

But, I mean, no, I don't think you'll unlock the fascination. It's a weird book. Maybe you just don't like it. I wouldn't blame you. There are so many "thou"s and digressions.

I will say, I've got a book club thing coming up in August and I will bring up your question about this being a dude book there. Interested to hear what people say.

message 20: by Nocturnalux (last edited Jul 05, 2018 08:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nocturnalux Alex wrote: "Ha! That's a really interesting question, Lynette. There certainly aren't any women in it, not in a meaningful way.

As a man, of course, I know all nautical terms, along with "plumbing" and how t..."

I'm a woman and I loved MD and I have met quite a few other women who feel the same way about the book. And when I covered it in college, the professor was also a woman.
This is just anecdotal, of course, but I just thought I'd mention it.

Speaking of nautical terms, thanks to Sandokan, at one point I knew all about ship related terminology from looking it up in the dictionary. Who knew each mast had its own name!
Sadly I've forgotten all about it.

message 21: by Alex (last edited Jul 05, 2018 09:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Noct, you're a woman?! Ha! All this time, my mental image was of a guy. Not that it matters! We are mostly people.

Oh, and I forgot to respond to your question, even though I thought about it for a couple days on and off.

The thing is Billy Budd is, like, the actual plot is gay, right? You can't even make sense of that book without gay. So it should be that one.

But then you get to Moby-Dick and Melville just gleefully, like...typing "sperm, sperm, sperm!" and you picture him sortof cackling madly, like "This is gonna go right over the heads of these 19th century fucknoggins, lollllll" and you sortof feel like just for sheer manic gay energy, and for the ludicrous Trojan Horseness of it, that Melville has written the Great American Novel, it's about dicks and sperm, he specifically said that like a million times, and no one got it...

Tough call, Noct. I don't have an answer.

Nocturnalux Alex wrote: "Noct, you're a woman?! Ha! All this time, my mental image was of a guy. Not that it matters! We are mostly people.

Oh, and I forgot to respond to your question, even though I thought about it for ..."

Heh, I am very often mistaken for a guy online, there's no problem at all.

I really have to reread MD soon! Speaking of gender and MD, Railsea was heavily inspired by Melville's opus (it has trains and rails instead of the sea and giant moles instead of whales) but the crazy captain is a woman.

I recently read Epistemology of the Closet, a whole chapter of which is dedicated to just how gay BB is.

message 23: by Alex (last edited Jul 05, 2018 11:04AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I've been doing some reading around Melville and Moby-Dick recently, and it's startling to me how many places duck the gay thing. Nathaniel Philbrick's intro to my Penguin edition doesn't even mention it. The Novel: A Biography glances in its direction and then rushes on. It's startling to me. I think you can make the case that these books aren't necessarily, definitely gay - it's a bad case but you can make it - but to pretend it's not even an interesting topic?

All of which is to say it's nice to hear that there's a whole book about this out there in the world. Was it good? (ETA: Well. Sounds not pellucid enough.)

And was Railsea good? I had my eye on it but then just...sortof forgot that I'd intended to read more Mieville.

message 24: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex ...for me, where I'm aiming at with these thoughts is that between Whitman and Melville, you could make a fair case that the foundation of American literature is pretty gay. I mean, who else? Twain? So ...two thirds gay. And when you look at it from that perspective - not just "Oh hey, there were gay writers," but "We live in a house that gay built" - that feels interesting to me.

Nocturnalux Alex wrote: "I've been doing some reading around Melville and Moby-Dick recently, and it's startling to me how many places duck the gay thing. Nathaniel Philbrick's intro to my Penguin edition doesn't even ment..."

That is one of the main points of Sedgwick's thesis (not pellucid at all, no, but this one point is actually clearly stated), that for ages academia did much to ignore queer aspects to literature that is very much charged with them.

The class that covered MD at my uni, for example, did not even mention anything about homosexual readings. Granted, it was one of those introductory affairs that goes through so much material in a single semester that it can hardly go into much detail into any particular work but still, it is quite remarkable.
The same went for Whitman, too, which is even more jaw dropping.

The general attitude seems to be, "these authors are highly influential and occasionally mention gay stuff" instead of "gay stuff is actually at the core of these authors' work".

I actually never got around to finishing Railsea. I enjoyed what I did read, the worldbuiling is impressive and the writing kept me interested throughout but I misplaced my copy and by the time I found it again too much time had passed so I'd have to restart.

message 26: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Ha! Whitman?! How the...

Hey, this conversation has really helped me understand some stuff I've been thinking about in re Melville; thanks for that, I appreciate it. I added some of this into my review.

message 27: by Mindy (new)

Mindy I linked to your review earlier tonight when talking to someone who didn't believe that real people actually like Moby Dick.

So, you better be real.

(I'm thinking of adding this to my 2019 list, what with it being Melville's 200th anniversary year. )

message 28: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Oh, I'm so sorry, Mindy...I am not real. I've never read any of these books. I just read their back covers and make up the rest.

Joanne Fate To me this is the best American novel, and certainly his best. But I listened "Democracy Matters" by Cornel West and now I'm going to have to get it on Audible and experience it again. It is antiracist and I only vaguely understood that concept the more than 25 years ago that I read it. I'm not much into rereading in general, but I plan to do a little of that next year.

message 30: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex That's a good point, Joanne! Its relationship to race is really interesting - at least for that first third, until Queequeg sortof disappears for much of the rest of it. I didn't get into that at all with this review, of the things that make this book great is how much there is to talk about!

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