One of the most interesting exercises I ever did in college was performed on an unremarkable day in an otherwise unremarkable English class, when our professor challenged us to figure out what the actual first line of Moby-Dick is. I'm not kidding; read the full text of the novel and you'll be struck by the idea that you could choose at least three different points of entry into it, each of which slightly change how we approach the book. I think this, in many ways, encapsulates the way we still aren't quite sure what to do with this massive tome, with it sweeping language, frequent diversions from the main story, and densely clustered allusions. One of the ways in which this manifests most clearly is that most people experience this book, shockingly enough, as boring. They view it as an overdramatic slog deprived of all levity and enjoyable qualities, and view reading it an experience akin to reading the script of The Revenant. However, I think this is an entirely incorrect characterization of the novel, not just because at the end of the day it's an utterly thrilling tale of adventure on the high seas while one's captain struggles with insanity, but also because the book contains a fair amount of humor. More specifically, I want to talk about the moment in which Captain Ahab is killed by the whale that gives the book it's title, a moment which is more speech than action:
Obviously, most of the analysis of Ahab's death focuses on the captain's pre-death speech, and for good reason. It's an absolutely epic monologue, and there's plenty to pick over and dissect in the sweeping, portentous words of a man finally face-to-face with his destiny. However, I think an unfortunate consequence of that is that not enough is made of the following moments: "with igniting velocity the line ran through the grooves;-ran foul" and "he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and... he was shot out of the boat." In a plainer English summary, the sequence of events becomes absolutely hilarious: Ahab makes this utterly badass, speech, then messes up the throw of his harpoon, and as he bends down to fix it, the rope attached to the harpoon wraps around his neck and tugs him into the deep. Coming on the heels of his intense final lines, this death, so utterly devoid of any gravity, can only read as utterly hilarious. This is borderline three stooges comedy, beyond silly, with the main character undone by utterly ridiculous moments of misfortune and his own mess up. The first time I read those lines I laughed out loud, and how could one not? It's absolutely absurd. There's even a short stinger at the end, with the line "the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths." This is the last image we get from the novel's climax, the death of Ahab: a random crewman knocked over by a flailing piece of rope after the captain has already been yanked into the deep by his own harpoon (the metaphoric imagery in this book is often wildly unsubtle, folks). How is that anything but hysterically comical?
There is, of course, a name for this technique, because people who study books know that we need lots of long words to make the world take it seriously as a pursuit: bathetic declension. This term is used to describe a dramatic shift in tone, from one elevated and noble to another that is far less exalted. This technique is almost always used for a very specific purpose, to puncture the aura surrounding the grandeur expressed at the beginning of the declension, to reveal that it is neither as grand or as noble as we originally convinced. In the excerpt in question at the end of Moby-Dick, the bathetic declension has an even greater purpose: it exposes the sham of not just Ahab's death speech, but the entire preceding novel. The humor, then, is not just a throwaway or an accident here. It is a conscious and determined choice by Melville to reveal something deep and profound to us, about the story we've been following for hundreds on hundreds of pages. It was never a grand and noble quest, but always a madcap suicide adventure undertaken by a deranged captain whose most enduring legacy is the death of his entire crew, a journey so tragically absurd that we should have been laughing at it from the beginning. The humor here, in other words, is actually largely the point of the novel. It reveals the real moral of the story. Far from detracting from the grand purpose and tone of the novel, the humor brings it into sharper focus, and is the most important part of the project.
Now I will freely admit that, especially on first read, Moby-Dick is a... difficult book. It's incredibly dense (in that every single word feels important to fully digest, and there are A LOT of these words) even as it often veers off on improbable tangents like why white is a terrifying color for a whale, packed with subtle allusions, and just generally a very complex book, even if I will go to my grave defending that it is well worth the read even for those who don't usually like reading because it is just such a work of sheer beauty. But for what it's worth, I think Melville realized how difficult his novel would be to process as well. Without compromising the power and gravity of the novel, he slid plenty of levity into the text for us to smile at even while parsing through incredibly complex sentences. There is, for example, a fart joke tucked away in the book, along with many other moments of surprise and delight, designed to keep readers hooked and laughing, bridging some of the novel's more challenging segments. I think that students being taught these moments, shown the humor in the novel even as they grapple, would not only grasp the book better, but gain a powerful understanding of how literary devices like bathetic declension function. So if you have never picked up the book or didn't enjoy your last turn through it, take it up one more time, and this time find something to laugh at. I promise that there's plenty to find, and I promise it'll make the experience much more powerful.
With excitement and optimism,