annotation by Robert Morgan Fisher
When one thinks of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, perhaps one pictures Captain Ahab atop the albino cetacean, harpoon repeatedly stabbing, water boiling with blood; or perhaps one recalls the haunting simplicity of the opening line: “Call me Ishmael.” The perception of Moby Dick as a melodramatic, tragic tale of one sociopath’s quest for revenge is understandable. But there is another surprising element of the novel that deserves special attention: Comedy.
It is my contention that Herman Melville is one of the most gifted comedy writers in the history of fiction and Moby Dick squarely puts him in the company of other 19th Century humorists such as Mark Twain. The comedy in Moby Dick is consistent and professional. Almost every single chapter contains humorous observations. Admittedly, much of the book describes whaling in excruciating detail, so without some levity the book would spiral into dry tedium. The chapters are short—another hallmark of comedy. For example, Chapter CXII is nothing more than a seven-sentence paragraph of Tashtego’s drunken rambling while perched on the main top-sail yard in a storm:
Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning.
The main-top-sail-yard.—Tashtego passing new lashing around it.
“Um, um. Stop that thunder! Plenty too much thunder up here. What’s the use of thunder? Um, um, um. We don’t want thunder; we want rum; give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!” (586)
That’s the entire chapter. It’s almost like a comedic cut-away in a Monty Python movie. Along those lines, Chapter XL is actually rendered in script format and reads like a Gilbert & Sullivan musical:
HARPOONERS AND SAILORS.
(Foresail rises and discovers the watch standing, lounging, leaving, and lying in various attitudes, all singing in chorus.)
Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies!
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain!
Our Captain’s commanded. –
1ST NANTUCKET SAILOR.
Oh, boys, don’t be sentimental; it’s bad for the digestion! Take a tonic, follow me!
(Sings, and all follow.) (213)
Every page of Moby Dick is marbled with “Ishmael’s” quips and editorial comments—some of which are laugh-out-loud funny. Here, Melville describes Queequeg’s extraction of Tashtego from inside of a whale:
And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing. (403)
But nowhere are Melville’s razor-sharp comedic chops more evident than in Chapter XCI: The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud. The setup here is that the Pequod comes across a French whaling ship (the Rose-Bud) whose captain, an effete, incompetent former cologne manufacturer, is forcing his crew to disembowel a pair of putrefying whales in hopes of salvaging some ambergris—heedless of the fact that anything harvested from decaying whales is an utter waste of time. The French captain does not speak English—but the “Guernsey-man” mate does. Stubb offers to explain to the French Captain—using whatever English words he chooses—the foolishness of this endeavor while Guernsey-man “interprets” Stubb’s words to serve his own purposes. What follows is Stubb calling the French Captain “babyish” and “no more fit to command a whaling ship than a Jago Monkey,” culminating in this utter gem of a punchline:
“What now?” said the Guernsey-man, when the captain had returned to them.
“Why, let me see; yes, you may well tell him now that—that—in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him, and (aside from himself) perhaps somebody else.”
“He says, Monsieur, that he’s very happy to have been of any service to us.” (473)
It is true that occasionally Melville’s comedy technique is reduced to slapstick and broad, politically incorrect characterizations of non-whites. Also, it’s easy to overlook the comedic brilliance of Moby Dick in this day and age of Greenpeace lobbying against the archaic insanity of the whaling industry. But the brutality of whaling aside, Melville’s comedic instincts are unerring, his timing exquisite. This is, after all, the author who gave us “Bartelby, the Scrivener”—a masterpiece of quirky characterization with expertly camouflaged satire that was centuries ahead of its time. Even at the very end of Moby Dick, Ahab tangled up with the great white whale, it feels as if the narrator is trying his best not to laugh at this idiot. We know Ishmael survived and went on to experience other whaling trips. His detachment in the face of tragedy bears the unmistakable mark of a comedy writer; humor often the only way a comedy writer can process the illogical sadness of this world. Moby Dick is solid proof that, were we able to transport Herman Melville forward 150 years, he could have easily found work as a staff writer on Seinfeld.
What’s the take-away from all this? For me, it’s the indispensability of humor. Even in the most dramatic of stories, it’s required—otherwise, the work descends into bathos and pretense. Where would One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Catch-22 be without humor? It’s a question of contrast. Quite often, humor works to counter carnage and violence—of which there is no shortage in Moby Dick. Humor is elemental; the positive charge balancing the negative.
It is well-known that Melville’s masterpiece failed in its initial publication. The book’s wry irony went over the heads of many critics, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. There were other reasons it fell through the cracks and wasn’t fully appreciated until the early 20th century, but one of those reasons has to be the book’s highly-developed sense of humor. Eschewing slapstick and broad comedy, the comedy of Moby Dick is masterfully layered in. Successful satirists and humorists take chances. One way they do this is to allow humor to arise organically from the scene and from character.
By the time Twain published Tom Sawyer in 1876, the audience was finally getting it. Melville was simply way ahead of his time.