Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why Moby Dick is Better than the Great Gatsby

Ads for the movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby coincided with my reading of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. I read only the former in high school (I bought Moby Dick on a whim and ended up loving it) and find myself much more likely to come across people who have read Nick's account of Jay Gatsby than Ishmael's of Captain Ahab. This is too bad, because Melville's work is, in my opinion, far superior. Probably because it's a far more hardcore book, and Melville actually worked as a whaler, giving him the real life legitimacy to write such an epic story that is based on a true shipwreck that actually happened.
Reasons why I prefer Moby Dick (as Collin points out, I have much more to say on Moby Dick than on The Great Gatsby but whatever I wasn't going to reread a book from jr year of hs just for a blog post):
Fascination with Whales > Fascination with Rich
Well, for starters, I find the "The Hollowness of the Upper Class", as the theme is described on SparkNotes to be somewhat generic: our society has always been obsessed with following the rich and charting how their lives are incomplete, how they aren't superior, and how money doesn't bring happiness. I'm not saying it's not true, but to me the setting is hardly exciting. Elites aren't uninteresting, just a known quantity.
The whaling industry, on the other hand, is a historical topic that easily merits more discussion than it typically receives. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Puts into historical perspective dependence on oil. Nantucket and New Bedford were hugely important when they were able to bring in oil. Now I know more about Nantucket's history than New Bedford's, but I do know that both of them saw a dramatic decline in their prosperity and relevance when they were no longer suppliers of oil. Nantucket reemerged as a tourism hotspot, as the islanders discovered that relics of the whaling age were interesting to outsiders. (This is a huge oversimplification.) I find this fascinating given oil's role in policy discussions in areas such as international relations, economics, and conservation.
2. As the book's opener shows, the whale has long inhabited the imaginations of mankind, and Ishmael frequently references Biblical interest in the Leviathan. In Moby Dick, whales are great powers of nature and God with which men must struggle, and the book's title character proves to be too strong for Ahab and the Pequod to handle. This powerful whale is part of what seems to be an invincibile sea. In the book's closing line (not nearly as famous as "Call me Ishmael"), Melville writes, "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (Melville 551). The notion of the invincibile sea is one that permeated the minds of many, even Rachel Carson, who later reversed courses. In an era in which the sea occupants' vulnerability is increasingly evident, we struggle to detach ourselves from the notion of the sea's invincibility. At the same time, what Ishmael says remains true for those who deal with water more closely. The sea cares naught for our trials, and we must be very cautious when facing its dangers.
3. The culture of whaling is fascinating. The killing required in whaling contrasts with the Nantucket Quaker culture from which many whaling ships, captains, and mates hailed. Moby Dick shows contrasting views towards whales through the characters of Captain Ahab  and Mates Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. Ahab, of course, is the raving lunatic, hellbent on revenge against the whale who took his leg. His bloodlust is made clear through every interaction he has throughout the book. Starbuck, meanwhile, is a principled Quaker, who whales for profit, rather than out of any sense of personal grievance. He provides the voice of reason throughout the book. For this reason (and perhaps because of this line "it's a coffee-pot, Mr. Starbuck; he's coming off to make us our coffee, is the Yarman" (Melville 340)), he makes an excellent inspiration for Starbucks coffee (that is where they got the name). (I'm too lazy to write about the others--hit up this Spark Notes article).
Ishmael > Nick
Nothing against Nick, really. He's a smart, moral, open-minded guy, AND he's from Minnesota. But Nick just hangs out with rich people, while Ishmael shares a bed with a cannibal he doesn't know and then becomes best friends with him, goes on a whaling voyage led by a madman, learns everything he can about the history and mythology of whales, gets a tattoo of a whale, and survives a shipwreck on a coffin his cannibal friend built. Ishmael is way more legit.
(If you're curious about what happened to the survivors of the boat Essex that played a major role in inspiring the Pequod, read In the Heart of the Sea. Seriously.)
Moby Dick (the actual whale) > Daisy
Not sure what it says about the state of female characters in literature that I find myself comparing a woman with a whale. But both Moby Dick and Daisy are objects of desire of their books' iconic eccentric men and both "smash things up". But whereas Daisy is shallow, and her unattainability doesn't make her seem strong, just too easily coerced by material comfort, Moby Dick is simply too powerful and awesome to comprehend. Ishmael can't even completely describe the whale to the reader, no matter how many chapters he devotes to it.
Ahab > Gatsby
I actually liked the character of Gatsby back when I read the book in high school and of all these comparisons, I'll concede that my preference of Ahab is the weakest of these. But Gatsby tries to be smooth but is awkward. Gatsby doesn't go by his old name of James Gatz. Ahab never tries to be anything other than the absolutely insane person he is. Having read plenty of books in high school English classes where characters have internal personas I have to annoy myself with trying to piece apart, I find it refreshing to deal with a character who is exactly who he appears to be.


  1. I don't necessarily disagree with you that Moby Dick is better, but I don't this does anything to prove that. This post a great, thoughtful write-up of why Moby Dick is really good, but has essentially nothing to say about The Great Gatsby. Not saying the comparison can't be made, just that the way you're doing it here, by extremely oversimplifying/ignoring an also-great novel and giving it only a few lines every other paragraph, perhaps isn't fair. Just my thoughts =)