Living Columns & Blogs

‘Moby Dick’ still deserves a read

Penn State’s dedication to teaching, research and service is enhanced by its support of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Penn State. OLLI serves the 50 and older students who attend activities “for the love of learning.”

I have been a member OLLI for six years and experienced courses from Shakespeare to quantum physics and from philosophy to spirituality. I developed a heightened love of learning when I was asked by the OLLI Curriculum Committee to teach serious fiction. Doing deep readings with other OLLI members of works by Faulkner, Steinbeck and Morrison was an intellectual treat. Mature, informed, engaged and thoughtful readers bring out and share meaning from a text.

Recently, 12 of us embarked on a study of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” In addition to its great themes, many of which are applicable today, we also chose to contemplate why “Moby Dick” is our most revered but least read American novel.

The main theme of “Moby Dick” is the human quest for knowledge. Notions of God, soul and the meaning of life and death are wrapped in politics and religion. “Moby Dick” is nearly plotless. A group of sailors, led by a monomaniacal captain, chase a white whale for three years in order to kill it; the whale kills them instead. Chapters recounting the voyage are sometime a narration, sometimes a play and sometimes scientific essays. Melville loads these chapters with his knowledge of philosophy, art, history, psychology and classic literature.

“Moby Dick” is steeped in biblical and classical references. Ishmael, an outsider, is much like the wandering biblical Ishmael. As narrator, he attempts to interpret episodes of interactions between crew members and Captain Ahab, who is much the same as the biblical King Ahab and seems to inhabit all the negative aspects of existence. According to Melville’s Ishmael, Captain Ahab is a modern Prometheus who defies the gods and much of theology. He reports on Ahab’s interaction with Starbuck, the virtuous but weak first mate. While Ahab is sleeping, Starbuck considers killing him in a speech that resembles Hamlet’s contemplation of killing Claudius while he is praying.

Stubb, the second mate, is a non-reflective fatalist who turns aside and laughs in dangerous situations. Flask, the third mate, is simply a clown. The three officers and 30 other men each must deal with Ahab in his own way. However, as a group, they still follow him, which is one of the many mysteries of a text that at times seems to be an epic poem or a medieval mystery play. When Ishmael is not narrating, Captain Ahab steps on deck and performs Shakespeare-like soliloquies. With reference to God and other entities, Ahab sounds as King Lear, Macbeth or Iago would.

With so much mystery and information in “Moby Dick,” the ink in the text become almost a Rorschach test for each reader. What does the whiteness of the whale mean? Is the whale’s revenge instinctual? Is it a beast? Is it a power? Finally, does the white whale represent that thing we humans pursue as we chase a career, a love or an idea that eventually destroys us? If Herman Melville were alive today and living in the Centre Region, with his “love of learning,” he would certainly be involved in OLLI. We could then discuss with him the meaning of difficult passages and together have fun chasing the whale.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering more than 140 courses this spring. To receive a free catalog for the spring semester, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit

David Porter has taught courses on “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Moby Dick” andTo Kill a Mockingbird.” He received a distinguished instructor award from OLLI.