Moby Dick: class summary

We began our discussion thinking about Queequeg. We talked briefly about Geoffrey Sanborn’s “Melville’s Furious Life.” We discussed Queequeg’s greatness and the potential optimism it suggests, and we considered an alternative reading of Moby Dick that revolves around Queequeg and not the usual suspects. This led us to question the “centrality” of his character: is he marginal? We then suggested that there was something lacking in Sanborn’s reading and concluded that it could have been more complete if it had compared Queequeg to the other marginal characters in the novel (Tashtego, Dagoo and, especially, Fedallah—whose portrait we then examined). We wondered what made these other characters less eminent than Queequeg, and suggested that perhaps Melville was not in favour of 19th century Chinese mercantilism, basing this claim on Melville’s bleak portrayal of Fedallah.

Afterwards we considered the “distributive possibilities” of the whale, and decided that each character has a different view of its stakes. Ishmael has a more visceral, tactile, democratic (and perhaps humane view) of what the whale has to offer—a conclusion we arrived to after carefully discussing the “squeeze, squeeze” passage. We suggested that the whale’s whiteness was Ahab’s stake, but also intimated the possibility that for Ahab the whale could not be broken-up—a direct consequence of his all-or-nothing way of seeing the world. This led us to a more profound discussion of Ahab’s monomania, which we concluded was an inefficient yet all-encompassing engine that absorbs everything and relents nothing.

Intermittently we discussed the coupling of characters in the novel. This led us to an extensive comparison between Pip and Ahab. We argued that if Ahab has a totalizing view of the world, Pip’s view is totally unaccounted for in the world. The latter lacks the subjectivity that the former has in excess (“who’s seen Pip the coward?”). We also briefly discussed the pre-historical ambitions of the novel, as well as the symbolic importance of the circle and the line

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