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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!