Surface as the Key to Understanding Moby-Dick

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22 November 2005

Surface: The Key to Understanding Moby-Dick

There are many key themes and words in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. One of the more interesting words found repeatedly is the word surface. There are several ways to interpret this word; it is the veil under which the unknown resides, it is the dividing line between the limits of human knowledge and that which is unknowable, it is the barrier that protects the soul from falling below, and it is a finite form . The first and most easily recognized is the repeated use of the word, appearing twenty-one times in the text from chapter thirty-two to one hundred thirty-five. In each of these instances the word is used in the physical sense, the surface of the water or the substantive surface of an object. Another way that surface can be read is as the idea of surface. The word surface lends itself to many interpretations; psychologically, philosophically, and theologically. The idea of surface also has a key role in understanding the depth of Moby-Dick such as in phrenology where the study of the surface becomes a search for truth, which then returns to the physical surface and its many uses. In the chapter titled The Nut, Ishmael, the narrator observes, "If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square" (Moby-Dick, 408). Phrenology is the study of the surface of the head, judging ones personality or fate based on the lumps found on their head. This study of the surface of the whales head then becomes an analogy for the remaining uses of the word surface. According to Ishmael, the phrenological study of the sperm whale's head is more difficult than solving the riddle of the sphinx and is like finding an answer to pi. Subsequently, in chapter sixty-eight (The Blanket) Ishmael uses the whale as a metonym calling it a hieroglyphic pyramid adding, "Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic marked whale remains undecipherable" (MD, 360). The deductions of the intelligence of the whale and his personality are unsatisfactory to Ishmael who seemingly wishes to deify the whale, so he creates a new pseudoscience of spinal phrenology. With this method the whales strength, power, and intelligence are procured, but as Harold Aspiz points out in his article "Phrenologizing the Whale," if the phrenology is to be taken seriously as a science, Ishmael has confirmed that the whales' "unquenchable dynamism is yoked only to brutish stupidity" (Aspiz, 27). Ishmael's phrenological studies are not to be taken this way however and should contrary to Aspiz's opinion be read in the context of the story to the intention of Ishmael. In such a context the whale is a mysterious creation with unfathomable power. The immensity that Ishmael places on this task of discovering "who" Moby Dick is precisely is now a metaphor for the understanding of Moby Dick.

From the idea of phrenology, one gets the idea that the study of the surface is going to be more important than it may have at once seemed. In Chapter forty-one, Ishmael uses the word surface to show Moby Dick's hidden truth, "the hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers" (MD, 224). Here, Moby Dick being transplanted by any Sperm Whale uses the surface of the water to hide his true immensity. The concept of unknowability is what is coming out of the idea of hiding under the surface. Ishmael acknowledges the idea of never being able to see the entirety of anything. The human observer is unable to account for the totality of the whale at any given time leading to the idea that like the Judeo-Christian God, Moby Dick is unknowable. The theological perspective of Moby Dick runs throughout the novel, each lending more evidence and credibility to the idea that Moby Dick is a representation of the Christian God and is the unknowable force on the lives of those who...
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