Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Moby Dick is the answer. What is the question?

Moby-Dick is the answer. What is the question?

In December 2021, I was a contestant on the popular American quiz show Jeopardy! Every Jeopardy! game has a brief segment in which contestants share anecdotes about themselves, and I used my time to proselytize reading Moby-Dick. I talked about my work on the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel, and emphasized that Herman Melville’s novel is unexpectedly weird, moving, and hilarious despite its monumental reputation. To my great surprise, I received scores of messages from strangers about Moby-Dick, far in excess of the notes I fielded about my actual quiz performance. Most were lovely, such as this kind email from a viewer: “your brief comments about Moby-Dick being humorous and even lighthearted at times weren’t what I was expecting…[it] led me to take another look, and to my delight, I found that you were right—right from the first page, there’s a joy and sprightliness about Melville’s writing.” Only a couple of Jeopardy! fans reached out to refute my terms (“Sexuality? Moby-Dick?” was the full text of one skeptic’s email—that correspondent, I guess, had never read as far as chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand”).

To my special delight I also received an email from my middle-school English teacher, who had watched my Jeopardy! episodes and wrote about our mutual love of Herman Melville. Mr Ronkowitz—I’m assured I can call him Ken now, but I’ll retain the honorific—reads widely and generously. We’ve been corresponding over the past months about literature and teaching, and I shared with him what I wrote about Moby-Dick for the Oxford edition. My introduction focuses on the elasticity of the novel and its continued relevance for twenty-first-century readers, with new attention to Moby-Dick‘s queerness and its meditations on race, power, disability, and the environment. 

In eighth grade Mr Ronkowitz had a reputation for challenging his students, and he’s still got it. “I get it that we teach literature in the context of both its time and the reader’s time,” he wrote after reading my introduction, “but to discuss Ahab’s afflictions in the context of disability studies and ‘whiteness’ in the light of critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement would be tough for me….My ancient undergrad study was devoid of homoerotic discussions and more about biblical and mythological allusions in the novel and tons of symbolic dimensions of the novel.” Archetypes are undeniably powerful; in a recent general public discussion of the novel that I led, readers asked me repeatedly what the whale symbolized. But unlike a quiz show, novel reading is not keyed to a single answer, or even a single question. And not everyone has Mr Ronkowitz’s willingness to do the work of questioning traditional givens.

“If Moby-Dick is the answer, then the questions asked of it are the ones that change with each new generation of readers.”

The gimmick of the game show Jeopardy! is that correct responses are given in the form of a question—the host reads the answer, and the contestants provide the question. To give one example of how the game is played: in a Moby-Dick category on the show a few years ago, the answer was “Have a cup of coffee & name this first mate aboard the Pequod”; a contestant subsequently furnished the correct question: “who is Starbuck?,” earning them $1600. Mr Ronkowitz’s acknowledgement of the difference between how Moby-Dick was taught to him in college, and how a professor like me teaches it today, shows the Jeopardy! principle in action: if Moby-Dick is the answer, then the questions asked of it are the ones that change with each new generation of readers. One of my aims for my work is to extend pathways among generations of Melville readers—past, present, future. I hope to make the case for why a potential reader might bring fresh questions to traditional understanding of Moby-Dick, and to suggest what might be the rewards of such a revisioning. 

Nineteenth-century lovers of nature writing, for instance, may not have seen in Moby-Dick‘s cetological chapters an explicit alarm over extractive fossil fuel industries. Ishmael sees “honor and glory” in whaling even as he wonders—in a chapter entitled “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?”—whether “the humped herds of whales,” like the “humped herds of buffalo,” face “speedy extinction.” To present-day readers attuned to the environmental consequences of natural resource depletion, the hunt for Moby Dick stands in for the industrialized world’s self-annihilating quest for ever more elusive sources of fossil fuel to power industry. 

It may be hard, as Mr Ronkowitz writes, to reopen what may have seemed to be settled questions but embracing difficulty can be generative both of new ideas and more just worlds. Throughout Moby-Dick, Melville insists that judgment, interpretation, and truth are contingent and slippery concepts, shaped by embodied experience and by the time and place of their consideration. We see this in Ishmael’s quick pivot from recoiling from Queequeg’s “cannibal” aspect to embracing him in culturally relativist marriage; in the Pequod sailors’ belief that Pip is mad rather than in possession of divine knowledge after his soul drowns; in the wildly divergent readings the crewmen offer of the doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the mast; in Ishmael’s own narrative fits and restarts. For every answer, Moby-Dick proliferates questions.

Melville justifies this promiscuity of meaning as an artistic necessity for producing a “grand” work: “small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” The grandness of Melville’s work lies in this very incompletion, in its recognition that the hoped-for readers to come in “posterity” will continue to refurbish and build additions onto the frame that Moby-Dick provides. What I especially love about this particular passage is how Melville acknowledges that his novel is not static, not fixed in time (and hardly timeless!), but an evolving project, extending from the present of its composition in both past and future iterations.

Moby-Dick remains alive to the questions that readers might bring to it, as my reconnection with Mr Ronkowitz—Ken—reminds me. In an era of economic and educational precarity, injustice and power imbalances, violence, and environmental crisis, what better hope than to connect with others also engaged in questioning—to feel what Ishmael calls the “universal thump”—and to continue the work of building more inclusive and accessible structures

Featured image by Ray Harrison via Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Robert Nowak


    thanks, this is the first good article I have read on this site. Only two days ago I urged my son, in his 30s but belatedly coming to reading, to read Moby Dick, and I think I will read it again myself.

  2. martin flaxman

    In his novel Moby Dick, by which name does Melville refer to his mother.

Comments are closed.