I first read Moby-Dick in tenth grade, when I was fifteen. We were given a list of “classic novels” and told to choose one from the list for each semester (two if the page count for one of them added up to fewer than 250 pages). I could have read something juicier, like The Scarlet Letter, Ivanhoe, or even Madame Bovary, but I chose Moby-Dick for the same reasons I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls*: the book was more than 250 pages long, and my parents owned a copy.
Eighty pages in, I gave up actually trying to read Moby-Dick and started skipping anything that didn’t contain either dialogue or a reference to the eponymous whale. So it’s a minor miracle that I did actually read Chapter LX, “The Line” – the chapter that falls in the dead center of the book and that, in many ways, encapsulates it.
“The Line” is one of what, at fifteen, I called “the whaling-manual parts.” It contains no dialogue, no exposition, and no perceptible consequence to the plot. It is, rather, a three-page description of the “whale-line,” the several hundred feet of rope that connect the harpoon to the whaling boat. It’s not the most superficially boring of the whaling-manual chapters in the novel’s first half (I’d argue that that distinction goes to “The Specksynder“), but its dryness is only emphasized by the fact that “The Line” is preceded by five chapters of whaling-manual and followed by one of the most exciting, busy, and sensory-intense chapters in the book, “Stubb Kills a Whale.”
I do not remember now why my fifteen-year-old self even bothered with “The Line.” I do know this: bothering with “The Line” saved my fifteen-year-old self when it came time to write the required paper on my novel of choice. Without giving away the ending (though, really, it was published in 1851), I’ll just note that “The Line”‘s lack of perceptible consequence to the plot provides no clue whatsoever to its actual consequence to the plot.
This summer is the first time I’ve picked up any of Melville’s work since I was in undergrad (where we were not expected to read Moby-Dick but practically memorized “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a text I would recall during my years at the law firm with a wry and savage glee). And I’m now questioning every assumption I ever made about Moby-Dick. It’s not just that I don’t trust my fifteen-year-old self’s judgment in literature**; it’s that, culturally, we are wrong about pretty much everything we think we know about Moby-Dick. This is a book about trauma, about temporality, about memory and projection and narrators telling so much truth they can’t possibly be relied upon. The whale is incidental, and yet without the whale there is no novel.
Moby-Dick might be the most complex American novel ever written. It is maddening in every sense. And, so far, it’s turning out to be one of the best decisions my fifteen-year-old self ever made.
Given that I couldn’t be trusted to match my socks at fifteen, that’s saying something.
*Let me tell you about the lifelong hate-fascination with Hemingway that decision cost me….
**Though really, fifteen-year-old self: Hemingway?