Moby-Dick begins with the etymological derivation of the word “whale.” Before presenting this etymology, the narrator presents the person who prepared the etymology, “a late consumptive usher to a grammar school,” a sort of failed schoolmaster who occupies himself with dusting off his old books. The etymology itself offers a quotation from the sixteenth-century explorer Hackluyt that emphasizes the importance of the unpronounced “h” in “whale.” One dictionary claims that the word derives from hval, the Swedish and Danish word for roundness, another that it derives from Wallen, the Dutch and German word verb meaning “to roll.” These etymologies are followed by the word for whale in thirteen other languages.
The “extracts” are quotations from various sources in which whales are mentioned. Again the narrator presents an obscure functionary as the compiler of the section, a “sub-sub-librarian.” The extracts range from biblical passages to lines from Shakespeare and Dryden to descriptions from scientific treatises, explorers’ accounts, and popular literature. They are numerous and suggest the wide range of things that the whale has represented at different times.
By commencing with scholarly materials—an etymology and extracts from other texts—Melville indicates that Moby-Dick will be more than a mere adventure novel. The introductory materials suggest not only that the novel is based on a thorough study of humankind’s attempts to understand the whale but that it will even attempt to make a serious contribution to this body of knowledge. Moreover, the range and variety of extracts and the canonical status of some of them suggest that whales are much more important to Western culture than people generally recognize.
The extracts are bewildering because of their variety as well as their sheer number. Novels are often prefaced with a single epigraph suggesting the central theme of the text to come and providing the reader with a point of departure. Moby-Dick’s extracts range from the highbrow to the lowbrow, the literary to the nonliterary, making it difficult to isolate any particular theme as central. One thing that the extracts clearly do is display the novel’s commitment to intertextuality (the referencing of other literary works), which might be seen as Melville’s strategy for establishing the literary worthiness of Moby-Dick in particular and American literature in general. The extracts imply that Moby-Dick is grand enough to encompass and build upon all of the works quoted here, from literary masterpieces such as Shakespeare’s plays and Paradise Lost to works of natural science. Moreover, the collection of extracts underscores the novel’s ambition to deal with a variety of human experiences, from those as profound and fundamental as the fall of man to those as mundane as schoolbooks and sensationalized magazine articles.
The consumptive usher and the “poor devil of a Sub-Sub” to whom Melville gives credit for the etymology and the excerpts add an air of pathetic comedy to the proceedings. They are stand-ins for all men, constantly struggling and seeking greatness but just as constantly overwhelmed and doomed to mediocrity. As caricatures of failed scholars, these figures lend an ironic tone to the novel’s academic pretensions, possibly suggesting the essential futility of attempts to capture the meaning of the whale in words. The valor, however, is in the effort, and it is in this spirit of self-deprecation that Melville begins his novel.