The Smile of the Sea

By Sebastian Garren

Few novels are as esteemed, as widely taught, or as misunderstood as Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick is one of the most referenced novels in the American corpus. If you know anything about what people claim is its central metaphor, it is that Captain Ahab wants to take revenge against God, whom he sees acting in the white whale for which the book is named. This is all wrong. This is not the central metaphor, and it is terrible bait upon which to lure a reader. I want to propose better one-line summary to our culture.

In the nineteenth century the novel reigned worldwide. And on the American continent one of the most celebrated is Herman Melville. Much of his writing is set at sea when sailing accounted for all important trade worldwide. Shipping, fishing, and the trade in whale oil (used in lamps and soap) meant there was worldwide demand for sailors. Herman Melville himself, desperate for work, responded to the demand and took to the sea. Typee and Omoo were adventure stories based on Melville’s travels in the South Pacific; in 1851, he published Moby-Dick.

Very few people read Moby-Dick; fewer still finish Moby-Dick. When people hear the title, they snicker or yawn. Who would have the gall to try and get pleasure out of something like that? The tome is met with close-eyed indifference by many a bibliophile and total terror by the unlettered. But when you, as one of the Elect of God, learn to read this book and swim about in it, you will find you have become a happier creature, for one reason above all: Moby-Dick is funny.

Not two pages go by without grandiose metaphor and rhetorical figures of the most bizarre, unpredictable sort. Melville nods and jokes and jests. This author draws preposterous morals out of everyday events, deploys biblical metaphor for the grossly anatomical, connects metaphysics to commercial enterprise, and elevates mundane emotions to the heights of English prosody. He switches genres and alters styles. Reading Moby-Dick is like holding on to the back of a frolicking, laughing, cackling dolphin.

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

If I am not mistaken the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’ had a line about Moby-Dick. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to Moby-Dick, “Thy will be done”, and those to whom Moby-Dick says, in the end, “Depart from me ye cursed ones.” All that are outside the novel, choose it. Without that self-selection there could be no illiterati, for no soul that seriously and constantly desires the joy of the novel will ever miss it. Those who seek find; to those who knock, it is opened.

That said, most people are not ready to read Moby-Dick. This is partly because most people are not ready to read a novel that is not, in fact, a novel. It hardly reads like a whaling adventure story; rather it is a set of rollicking linguistic gaffes undulating over dark poetic depths. You do not finish the sea. You may go down to it again and again, but never finish it.

Experience taught me these truths. I read the first chapter of the novel around ten times before reading a page more. Was I bored? Was I afraid of the length? No, neither: I sat on the shores of the novel, sipping the playful, bubbly spirit of the language. I was simply building literacy and tolerance and appreciation for a new type of art.

The secret to unlocking the novel is not to read it for its spiritual metaphors, or its maritime adventures, or its historical significance, or even for bragging rights. The secret is to enjoy the experience of its narration—a pushy, aggressive, adversarial, and playful guide to a set of characters, metaphors, and nautical nonsense. Next time someone asks you what Moby-Dick is about, tell them it is about the struggles of an aggressive, salty, and humorous narrator to stick to a genre and tell a story, and that this is a profound metaphor for life. This is all right.


Sebastian Garren is the Founder of St. John Paul II South Campus in St. Louis, MO, and serves as its High School Dean. He promotes hybrid model schools, classical education, and progress studies. He also engages in forecasting tournaments, poetry readings, and Chicago ball. He even responds to emails.

Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other author profiles here at the Journal, on figures from Euripides and Cicero to Francis Bacon and Blaise Pascal. You might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored, or our ongoing seminar series on the men and women of the Great Conversation.

Published on 21st November, 2020. Page image of an illustration from an 1892 edition of the novel, drawn by Augustus Burnham Shute.

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