What is a Whale? Moby-Dick, Marine Science and the Sublime

Part of the The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics book series (LEAF, volume 13)

Moby-Dick (1851/1931) is a magnificent novel, an American epic, a literary encyclopaedia, a monument of language. Jean-Paul Sartre (1941/1977) called it a Summa, a gigantic, monstrous, antediluvian book. One may read Moby-Dick for several reasons, and from several perspectives: as a novel of adventure, a psychological case history casting an obsessed sea captain, an anthropological study of nineteenth-century maritime life, or a fascinating example of Bakhtinean “heteroglossia”. Whenever reference to Moby-Dick is made, the first thing that will come to mind, no doubt, is the novel’s fantastic plot, more spectacular than tragic, when the great White Whale at last destroys the destroyer of its species. Indeed, Moby-Dick can be read as an affidavit, a persistent effort of Ishmael –its narrator – to convince us of the fact that things like that can really happen – although in the end hardly anyone will believe him.

In this chapter, however, Moby-Dick will be read as a literary document that sets out to tell us something about maritime nature, about the wide, unshored, oceanic expanses and its most eminent inhabitant, the whale – the great Sperm Whale to be exact. Melville’s novel constitutes an important file, a chapter in animal history, written in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Darwin was about to publish his Origin of Species. Moby-Dick is a document that pretends to answer the question What is a whale? Or rather, it stages a struggle between several incompatible answers, yielded by incompatible perspectives on marine life, mutually challenging and criticizing one another. Moreover, these answers entail different ethical judgements on the moral status of the whale and on the moral propriety of whaling.

Three perspectives, three ways of answering the question of the whale, as fleshed out in the novel, will be taken into consideration in this chapter: that of the whaler (or “whaleman” as Melville calls him), the scientist, and the philosopher. In this introduction I will sketch them in broad outline, before submitting them to a more careful examination in subsequent sections.


Sperm Whale Official Science Toothed Whale Maritime Nature Great Whale 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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