Sounding the Whale: Moby-Dick as Epic Novel

Sounding the Whale: Moby-Dick as Epic Novel

Bainard Cowan

In the past decade, critics seem to have found the power of Melville’s works so threatening that they feel they must seize interpretive control over it, and only the strongest determinants and delimitations of meaning have sufficed. Thus, biography-cum-psychoanalysis, sexual orientation, race, and political ideology have dominated recent readings of Melville, who has come to resemble that “captive king … [beneath] the piled entablatures of ages” who haunts the dreamwork of Moby-Dick. It is a relief, then, to have in hand a study that, using issues of genre as its guide to meaning, expresses thorough confidence both in the author’s aesthetic intentions and in his deep insight into human life.

Christopher Sten declares on the first page of The Weaver-God, He Weaves-expressing what seems nearly an article of faith — that Melville’s “narratives were woven, like the warp and woof on a loom, of his own experience and the collective experience of his predecessors in the novel.” Any reader of Moby-dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man knows, of course, that Melville had a great deal to say about the poetics of the novel (he tackles the subject explicitly in the last of these three titanic texts); but Sten goes further, broadening his focus on the poetics of genre to embrace Melville’s entire oeuvre. Before Moby-Dick, he argues, this writer’s engagement with the novel’s subgenres was both apprenticeship and experiment: Typee recasts the conventional romance by making its focus a male ingenu and transferring the action to the South Seas; Omoo, likewise, involves Pacificizing the picaresque novel (Sten explores this aspect of the book more persuasively, and in greater detail, than any earlier critic). In Mardi, Melville returns to the Pacific romance, but with even less equivocal intentions; Sten sees this novel not as the “loose, baggy monster” and “chartless voyage” it has been called, but rather as a fantasy romance in the tradition of the imaginary journey. Redburn is a democratic and ironic twist on the Bildungsroman, and White-jacket is Melville’s take on the political novel: few surprises there, at least on the surface.

But, writes Sten, “beginning with his epic of the Whale, Melville was no longer simply appropriating previous forms or using them in imaginative ways for his own purposes. He was profoundly redefining them, and in the process redefining the future of the novel.” He goes on to contend that “Israel Potter, The Confidence Man, and Billy Budd are all strikingly reader-oriented texts, rather than character studies in the customary sense,” and that therefore “it is Melville’s readers, more than his protagonists, who are forced to see themselves anew.” This assertion holds up, it seems to me, for the best of his tales as well — Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and the story of Hunilla in “The Encantadas.” At this stage of his career Melville was creating new subgenres at every turn: a new breed of psychological novel in Pierre; an historical critique of the present in Israel Potter; a kind of metanovel in The Confidence Man; and in Billy Budd, he offered a novelistic version of the late-nineteenth-century problem play.

Sten’s schema is consistent, and his best chapters make this book an indispensable resource on the controlling context of genre. He has less to say, however, about the theoretically interesting aspects of genre -about the means (to put it less dryly) by which Melville renders the novel a living, changing thing, and by which he uses the novel itself both to enact and to comment on the problems of its genus. His solidly grounded approach does enable him to provide rich and helpful readings of all Melville’s prose narratives, and for this I am thankful; but the promise of an equally rich feast of poetics is never fulfilled. One important reason for this is that Sten almost never refers to novels other than Melville’s. Melville does bury his traces well; but there is that venerable work of scholarly sleuthing by Merton Sealts, Melville’s Reading (recently reprinted by the University of South Carolina Press), and one ought, I think, to dive into the incredible library cataloged there in order to support the claim that Melville’s narratives constitute his part of a long and active conversation on genre.

Early in the book one encounters this passage — which is, I believe, Sten’s most forceful expression of his argument that Melville’s novels, taken in their full sweep, reveal a developing exploration of the nature of the soul:

In the course of writing White-jacket, however, or in the course of

the personal experience that formed the basis of the narrative,

Melville’s conception of identity changed dramatically from a social

and psychological phenomenon, such as one would find in the

writings of Erikson or even Freud, to a spiritual one, such as one might

find in the work of Dante or Augustine…. The change, I suspect,

can be pinpointed to the moment when Melville describes his

young protagonist’s identity as being all but stripped from him in

the scene where he is called before the mast for his failure to be at

his post and is subsequently threatened with a public flogging….

Here what Melville dramatizes in the young hero’s instinctive

outrage and resistance to authority is that there is an “Ur-identity”

behind the social and psychological dimensions of identity, an

immense capacity or energizing power that underlies the quotidian

capacities and past experiences usually thought to define an

individual. This Ur-identity is spiritual in that it is limitless, or

virtually so — all-powerful and eternal — unlike the Ego, which is finite

and, as Melville would soon demonstrate in the example of Ahab,

doomed to die. The discovery of this Ur-identity, in turn, lies at the

heart of Moby-dick, which he there calls the “soul,” and which he

portrays symbolically in the image of the great White Whale, the

objective correlative of Ishmael’s own spiritual being. Ishmael’s

story, as I see it, is the story of the would-be suicide’s saving

experience of the protracted, yet ever-startling, unfolding of his own


This unfolding is completed in Moby-dick. In subsequent works “it was time for him to write as a wisdom figure … it was time for him to weave dreams of a common destiny.”

Sten is eager to restore the outline of Melville as a writer with penetrating insight into the soul; he is comfortable with those bold and universal terms that fell from favor with the rise of French-influenced theory. Melville is a “strong” modifier of the Transcendentalists, seeing life as a sometimes ignominious, sometimes magnificent struggle within which one’s only hope is to discover and follow, over the dictates of the ego (and certainly over the superego and external pressures as well), the true desire of the soul. “Do not let anything master you except your soul,” wrote Seneca nearly two thousand years earlier; and this dictum seems to sum up the point of view Sten (wisely) finds central to Melville.

Sten’s reading of Moby-dick, which his publisher has issued as a paperback under the title Sounding the Whale, admirably substantiates that novel’s oft-discussed status as an “epic.” He distinguishes helpfully between two traditions: the “primitive national epic of combat” on which Melville draws for Ahab, and “the “modern universal epic of spiritual quest” that is the novelist’s source for Ishmael. He parcels Moby-dick into five sections, a division that clarifies and buttresses his claim for Ishmael as protagonist and even as Dantesque epic hero. Ahab, for his part, is linked convincingly to. “Melville’s summation of the cultural values of the United States in 1850-pride, independence, manly determination, pragmatism” — a disposition that makes the young nation “incapable of throwing off the childish ego; sensitive to any threat to its interests, big or small; quick to defend its sovereignty as well as its honor; lacking any real faith in the unseen.”

Sten’s primary method is close reading, within the framework of considerations provided by his focus on genre. He is neither hyperliterary nor excessively sociopolitical. This last is a virtue, but pursued so assiduously as to verge on a fault: Sten rarely touches on political nuances of meaning. We are reminded, for instance, that the protracted satire in Mardi has as one prominent object Americans’ tendency to view their republic as the culmination of history. But at the same time “the central message” of the book is that “in the pursuit of happiness, politics are irrelevant, at least beyond a certain point.” This notion of idealistic individualism — which seeks to locate a culture’s meaningful values within the individual rather than in abstract clashes of economic or political forces-is a common subtext in fantasy and romance, and it accords with Sten’s own ideology. Whether one hails this approach or derides it as pop psychology may depend on what one thinks of Erik Erikson’s theories of identity formation, on which Sten recurrently bases his interpretive forays into Melville’s development as a novelist. To my mind, the problem with Sten’s explications is that they impute a certain narcissism to Melville-a narcissism that is unavoidable if one marks the “growth of consciousness” so diligently and esteems it so highly (Sten confidently asserts that this “growth of consciousness” is “Melville’s central subject” and “the principal theme” of Mardi as well).

I have no doubt that Melville’s works are about the soul, so I am heartened by Sten’s emphasis, by his forceful and logical reading. Yet his method also demonstrates a major pitfall of psychological theories: there is a ready answer on hand for every question, and the messy complexities of actual experience, of which great literature is rightly said to be a distillation, are conspicuously absent from his commentary. The paradoxical, the outright contradictory, the “other” — source of the need for politics, imaginary or real — has been banished from the picture. And Sten’s insistence on reading every detail in terms of Melville’s grand self-development occasionally leads into error. Father Mapple, for instance, fits the critic’s Joseph Campbellian mold of “the returning hero in his role as boon-carrier,” and Sten exhorts us to see “how difficult it is to return to the human fold after the intense inwardness and sub-limity of the hunt…. [T]o speak to the dead of their deadness … is a hard thing.” This rather lofty praise rings false; it strikes me as admiring someone for being overfull of himself. Mapple serves as a sort of wisdom figure, and similar figures, among them Bildad and Peleg (“What Peleg hints at here is that those who stray from the true spirit of whaling. . .”), pop up all over the place, guides for the naive and growing Ishmaelite soul. (One danger of Sten’s predilection for descrying wisdom nearly everywhere is that it forces the reader to think of Ishmael as having even more to learn than one had previously suspected.) A meaning-smitten critic like Sten too easily forgets, perhaps, what Melville never did — that the soul gains in glory, gains in being, for every trace of material and temporality it manages to pull with it, for every inch it manages to ascend against the downward tug of gravity and circumstance. But as I’ve suggested, Sten is redressing an imbalance in Melville studies, and even this forgetfulness is refreshing after the long diet Melville’s works have had of criticism with no spirit at all, nothing but roughage.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Louisiana State University

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning