Tuesday, August 20, 2019

But What is Moby Dick About? Why Everyone Should Read Moby Dick...

I am reading Moby Dick but it's not because I wanted to read it. Nothing about Moby Dick appeals to me. I'm not a person who likes adventure stories. I'm not keen on male protagonists. I'm not even interested in whales.

What has made me decide to read Moby Dick? It's hearing the fanatical Moby Dick fan talk about the vast themes of the book.

Nathaniel Philbrick is so enamored of Moby Dick that he wrote an entire book called Why Read Moby Dick? and, of course, I read that. "It's as close to being our American Bible as we have," Philbrick tells us in an interview with NPR. Moby Dick contains the "genetic code" of America, he goes on to say, and, as Americans, we will always go back to it "whenever we will run into an imminent cataclysm."

Curious to know more, I searched for the themes found in Moby Dick by others. 

Austin Allen in an article in Big Think tells us that the "long stretches of tedium interrupted by bursts of gripping excitement" in the book are exactly like a whale hunt.  "The novel all but dares you not to finish it," he adds, prodding us further, "lest you fail like Ahab." Then Allen jabs us with a harpoon: "This is a feat of endurance, captain."

For Philip Hoare, writing in The New Yorker, "In an age of uncertain faith, then as now, “Moby-Dick” resembles a religious tract, an alternative testament." It took Hoare time to become a convert, but once he started reading, he found he couldn't stop. Hoare says it's not a book at all. "It’s more an act of transference, of ideas and evocations hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, an extended musing on the strange meeting of human history and natural history," he gushes.

Mark Beauregard finds that Moby Dick "just won't die." It provides perfect analogies and symbols and themes for today's world. "Moby Dick as a symbol of nature’s resistance to human will has become more powerful and terrifying than ever," Beauregard tells us in Literary Hub. In the last American election, some Americans wanted monomaniacal Captain Ahab (Trump), Beauregard says, while others looked for a radical populist Ishmael (Sanders). 

In The Atlantic, Joe Fassler writes, "It's been called a whaling yarn, a theodicy, a Shakespeare-styled political tragedy, an anatomy, a queer confessional, an environmentalist epic; because this novel seems to hold all the world, all these readings are compatible and true." 

Wow. There's a lot of love out there for this book.

Looking further, I find a long list of themes found in Moby Dick:

Fate and free will

Man and the natural world

Limits of human knowledge

Good and evil

Consciousness and instinct

Surfaces and depths

Struggle and acceptance


Sin and redemption

Fraternity and friendship





Madness and obsession

Civilized and pagan societies



It's all there.

And that's why everyone should read Moby Dick.

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together. Each Tuesday That Artsy Reader Girl assigns a topic and then post her top ten list that fits that topic. You’re more than welcome to join her and create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list as well. Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you! Please link back to That Artsy Reader Girl in your own post so that others know where to find more information.


  1. Wow, that is a lot to process. I was supposed to read Moby Dick in high school but I didn't. The first few pages were all it took to realize this is not for me. Yet... you list so many themes to be found in this book much hated by high schoolers everywhere. Hope you enjoy it and find some goodness in it.

    1. I still have hope that it will happen. I still have 15% of the book left.

  2. Good post! Do you think you'll read more classic novels in the near future?

    My TTT

  3. Even after all that, I doubt I'll tackle Moby Dick.

    1. Aw! I still didn't convince you? To tell you the truth, I'm still not convinced myself.

  4. I am LOVING these facts and hope that this nudges more people to read it in the future. It truly is a classic.

    1. I have inched closer and closer to the like button for Moby Dick.

  5. Well done for sticking with it, even though you’re not completely onboard! You’ve powered through much faster than me, who is still ashore in Nantucket, waiting for my sight of Ahab. I’m applying my slow reading principles to this book which is helping me to uncover the pearls. But I get how this is a book that wouldn’t suit so very many readers for all the reasons you mentioned. His use of language could also put some readers off. I’ve struggled with so many biblical references & stories, but I understand that he had a childhood fully immersed in Calvinist theology. It’s only natural that so many allusions to this would find their way into his writing, along with his fascination for Shakespeare.

    This is a great post for bringing together the themes and why we read Moby Dick, despite or because of its trickiness.

    1. My little posts have helped me make better sense of Moby Dick. I have also found that I like it better when I understand it better. Thank you, American educational system of the 1960s.

  6. I read Moby Dick, once upon a course where Melville was lauded and I felt I "ought" to. I can't say I enjoyed it, and I confess I skimmed on some of the descriptions.


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