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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

In the end, as one reflects on the book, one is aware that one must reckon with the most comprehensive of all its qualities, the quality that can only be called mythic.... Like a truly myth-making poet's, Melville's
imagination was obsessed by the spectacle of a natural human scene in which the instinctive need for order and meaning seems mainly to be confronted by meaninglessness and disorder; in which the human will seems sometimes to be sustained but oftener to be thwarted by the forces of physical nature, and even by agencies that lie behind it; in which goodness and evil, beneficence and destructiveness, light and darkness, seem bafflingly intermixed.

Newton Arvin, Herman Melville, 1950

Queequeg's love redeems Ishmael from the fatal isolation which has led him to choose Ahab's ship for his journey away from his self. He must lose himself to find himself. His love for Queequeg makes this possible, and qualifies Ishmael alone of Ahab's oath-bound crew, to dissever the bonds of hatred and vengeance and so qualify for survival from the annihilation that Ahab willed for all the rest.

Daniel Hoffman, Form and Fable in American Fiction, 1961

Ahab... is a hero; we cannot insist enough on that. Melville believed in the heroic and he specifically wanted to cast his hero on American lines-someone noble by nature, not by birth, who would have 'not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture.' Ahab sinned against man and God, and like his namesake in the Old Testament, becomes "a wicked king." But Ahab is not just a fanatic who leads the whole crew to their destruction; he is a hero of thought who is trying, by terrible force, to reassert man's place in nature. And it is the struggle that Ahab incarnates that makes him so magnificent a voice, thundering in Shakespearean rhetoric, storming at the gates of the inhuman, awful world. Ahab is trying to give man, in one awful, final assertion that his will does mean something, a feeling of relatedness with his world.

Alfred Kazin, Introduction to the Riverside Edition of Moby-Dick, 1950



A hunt. The last great hunt.

For what?

For Moby-Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is hoary, monstrous and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.

Of course he is a symbol.

Of what?

I doubt that even Melville knew exactly. That's the best of it.

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 1927

Melville did not achieve in Moby-Dick a Paradise Lost or a Faust. The search for the meaning of life that could be symbolized through the struggle between Ahab and the White Whale was neither so lucid nor so universal. But he did apprehend therein the tragedy of extreme individualism, the disasters of the selfish will, the agony of a spirit so walled in within itself that it seemed cut off from any possibility of salvation.

F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 1941

As Ahab in his whaleboat watches the Pequod founder under the attack of the whale, he realizes that all is lost. He faces his "lonely death on lonely life," denied even "the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains," the privilege of going down with his ship. But here, at the nadir of his fortunes, he sees that in his greatest suffering lies his greatest glory. He dies spitting hate at the whale, but he does not die cynically or in bitterness. The whale conquers-but is "unconquering." The "god bullied hull" goes down "death glorious." What Ahab feels is not joy or serenity or goodness at the heart of things. But with his sense of elation, even triumph, at having persevered to the end, there is also a note of reconciliation: "Oh now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief." This is not reconciliation with the whale, or with the malice in the universe, but it is a reconciliation of Ahab with Ahab. Whatever justice, order, or equivalence there is, he has found not in the universe but in himself.... In finally coming to terms with existence (though too late),
he is tragic man; to the extent that he transcends it, finds "greatness" in suffering, he is tragic hero.

Richard B. Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy, 1959

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