Moby Dick
Herman Melville
Contributed by Jerrold Mcmenamin
Etymology and Extracts
Summary

Etymology

The novel Moby Dick starts with the etymological derivation of the word “whale”. The narrator first introduces the person who prepared the etymology, “a late consumptive usher to a grammar school,” and a failed schoolmaster who keeps himself busy by dusting off his old books. The etymology offers a quotation from Hackluyt, a sixteenth-century explorer, who emphasizes the importance of the unpronounced “h” in the word “whale". One dictionary claims that the word derives from hval, the Swedish and Danish word for roundness, another claims that it is derived from Wallen, the Dutch and German verb meaning “to roll". These etymologies are followed by the word for whale in thirteen other languages.

Extracts

The “extracts” in the book are quotations from various texts in which there is a mention of whales. The narrator introduces an obscure official as the compiler of the section, a “sub-sub-librarian”. The quotations in the extracts have been taken from biblical passages to lines from Shakespeare and Dryden to descriptions from scientific treatises, explorers’ accounts and popular literary texts. They are numerous and show a wide range of things that the whale has represented at different times.

Analysis

Melville's novel has an unusual start as it commences with scholarly materials — an etymology and extracts from other texts. It gives a fair idea to the reader that Moby Dick will be much more than a mere adventure novel. The introductory pages makes it clear that the novel is based on a thorough study of mankind’s attempts to understand the whale and that it will make a serious contribution to this body of knowledge. The range and variety of extracts and the canonical status of some of them shows that whales have a lot of significance in the Western culture than people generally think. The extracts are mind-boggling in terms of their variety and sheer number. Often novels are prefaced with a single epigraph telling the central theme of the text and providing the reader with a point of departure. Moby Dick’s extracts range from classics to lowbrow, from literary to non-literary, making it impossible to specify any theme as central. However, the extracts clearly display the novel’s commitment to intertextuality — the referencing of other literary works in the text. It could well be Melville’s way of establishing the literary worthiness of Moby Dick in particular and American literature in general. The extracts imply that the scope of Moby Dick is grand enough to embrace and build upon all of the works quoted from literary masterpieces such as Shakespeare’s plays and Paradise Lost to journals on natural science. The wide range of extracts shows that the novel deals with a plethora of human emotions. They can be as profound as the fall of man to as mundane as school books and saucy magazine articles. The usher and sub-sub-librarian responsible for the etymology and the excerpts add an air of pathetic comedy to the proceedings. They are symbolic of all men, struggling and aspiring for greatness, but in the end, overwhelmed and doomed to mediocrity. Portrayed as caricatures of failed scholars, these men show the futility of novel’s academic pretensions. It is as if the men are saying that there is no way one can even try to capture the meaning of the whale in words. The bravery, however, is in trying. Well aware of the situation, Melville begins his novel in somewhat self-deprecating tone.

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