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by William H. Benson

July 31, 2003


     Unlike Jonah’s great fish, the White Whale had a name–Moby Dick, and unlike Jonah’s short story, Herman Melville wrote a lengthy novel.  But like Jonah and the whale, Moby Dick is a fish story.

     Captain Ahab’s crew included an odd assortment of sailors–Starbuck, the first mate, Stubb, and Flask; the harpooners– the tattooed Queequeg and Tashtego and Daggoo; and Ishmael, the narrator of the story.  Melville began his novel with the words, “Call me Ishmael”.

     And then there is Captain Ahab who had lost a leg on a previous expedition when this great White Whale he had named Moby Dick had somehow bitten it off.  Motivated by hate and anxious for revenge, Ahab finally told his crew of his true intentions of finding and killing Moby Dick after they had set sail, and the crew agreed to join him in his hate campaign; after all, what choice did they have?  And so the objective of the voyage shifted from that of gathering whale oil and bone to that of seeking revenge.

     Few readers today have the patience to get through to the final pages, but Ahab and his crew eventually find and chase the White Whale for three days.  Then, at one point the crew could see that Moby Dick seemed determined to swim away from the ship.  “Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day to desist.  See! Moby Dick seeks thee not.  It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him.”

     It was strange that a first mate on a whaling vessel did not want to harpoon a whale, but Starbuck by then understood that Captain Ahab’s obsession to kill the whale had driven him and his crew along a self-destructive path that could consume them all.

     And then Moby Dick turned and head-butted the ship, the Pequod, seriously damaging the hull, and the crew realized that the voyage was over.  A harpooning mechanism knocked Captain Ahab into the ocean, and was never seen again. 

     In his last few moments before the ship sank, Stubb cried out, “Cherries! cherries! cherries!  Oh, Flask, for one red cherry ere we die!”  And Flask replied, “Cherries?  I only wish that we were where they grow.”

     The Pequod took on water and sank along with the crew.  The phrase at the top of the half-page Epilogue is a quote from the book of Jonah: “And I only am escaped to tell thee,” because Ishamel, the narrator, survived to supposedly write the story.

     At the end of Candide, another major literary work, the French thinker Voltaire summarized his philosophy with the sentence, “Each of us must cultivate our own garden,” a conclusion that philosophers and thinkers have pondered over much through the years, often wondering how to apply it to humans and to their institutions and to their individual circumstances.

     Applied to Moby Dick one can conclude that it is difficult to cultivate a garden out at sea, certainly when following someone else’s crazed notions of righting past wrongs and of seeking vengeance.  It is difficult to bite into a garden’s fruits and vegetables when we have not planted and cultivated and then harvested from our own garden.  For at sea we can only dream of tasting a bing cherry.

     August the first is Herman Melville’s birthday, and perhaps it can be a day to go fishing, but perhaps  not for a whale.  But it is also the season to cultivate and yes even harvest tomatoes and cucumbers and watermelons and green peppers and onions from our own gardens.