A white whale ate my leg- Cotkin’s journey with Moby-Dick

When I first read Moby Dick, I had no idea nor any expectation that there was a musical in the middle of it. The chapter entitled “Midnight, forecastle” [either chapter 39 or 40, depending on your edition] is a short musical number in the form of a play. Sailors dance around, singing while accompanied by a tambourine. The entire chapter is written in standard dramatic format, each character’s dialogue delineated with descriptions of the action:

Azore Sailor
(Ascending and pitching the tambourine up the scuttle).
Here you are, Pip; and there’s the windlass-bits; up you mount! Now, boys!
(The half of them dance to the tambourine; some go below; some sleep or lie among the coils of rigging. Oaths a-plenty.)

(Melville, 1922, p. 156)

It’s this chapter that really turned me on to Moby Dick. It was so unexpected and so “random” and so weird! “What the heck is going on?” And I’ve been thinking that ever since…until today, when I discovered George Cotkin’s exploration of the novel entitled Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick [call number PS 2384 .M62 C67 2012, on the lower level of McNairy Library].

What makes Cotkin’s book so interesting it that he explores each individual chapter of Moby Dick in sequence. Each chapter has its own short essay in which Cotkin usually compares the contents of the chapter with another author/artist/book in order to provide context. For example, in his exploration of chapter one, which contains the famous first line, “Call me Ishmael”, Cotkin discusses the first lines of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus, 1955, p. 3). This discussion provides context for Ishmael’s state of mind and his own thoughts of suicide. Cotkin also points out ironically that Ishmael has become a voyager on a “vessel bound for a suicidal reckoning with the White Whale of meaning” (Cotkin, 2012, p. 16). Cotkin’s essays, as they pile up on the reader, create a startling sense of insight for what many readers consider an opaque window that even if you could look through it, one would only find a labyrinth. Such is the reputation of Moby Dick.

Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick displays an industrious attempt at comparative criticism on a granular level. There are 135 chapters in Moby Dick; Cotkin provides the reader with a corresponding group of 135 comparative essays with critical insights as well as historical and literary context. It’s a terrific accomplishment for those of us into Moby Dick [you know who you are].

As for the chapter “Midnight, forecastle”, Cotkin doesn’t have enough time to discuss the “why” of having a musical number in the middle of the most ambitious novel of American literature. But he does pursue an interesting argument, suggesting that the chapter represents the racial tensions tearing apart the United States before the American Civil War:

Perhaps, then, the Pequod is representative of the madness of a nation that had recently ordained a compromise designed to allow Pip and his black brethren to be subjugated, even when they found quiet waters in free states. Pip’s shout is the authentic voice of the slave praying for salvation and preservation from mad white men.

(Cotkin, 2012, p. 79)

Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. New York, Knopf, 1955 (1972 printing).
Cotkin, G. (2012). Dive deeper : journeys with Moby-Dick. New York : Oxford University Press, c2012.
Melville, H. (1922). Moby Dick : or, The whale. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1922.


Rosenthal, James W. View of peg rail and rigging at port bow. – Schooner ERNESTINA, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park State Pier, New Bedford, Bristol County, MA. 2007. Photograph. Lib. of Cong., Washington D.C. Lib. of Cong. Web. 09 Oct. 2015. <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ma1719.photos.574253p/>.