Reading Moby-Dick as US elections take place (and drag on) this week has been a particularly strange experience. Moby-Dick or The Whale is one of those timeless novels that can be applied and reapplied to historical moments as we live them, and if there ever was a year for Moby-Dick, it has to be 2020.
This has felt like a year where the world has a surplus of Captain Ahabs. You know the types; power-hungry men driven by lunacy and the thirst for revenge. Whether it's revenge for their damaged egos, revenge against an unruly population, or revenge for the sake of revenge, the human cost has been real.
Perhaps this is why Moby-Dick, and crazy Captain Ahab, seems more dire especially now. It's hard not to feel like we're all onboard the Pequod, sailing toward our doom with a maniac at the helm. But, I think there are a couple positive themes we can take from Moby-Dick, too.
Lessons of Love: Queequeg and Ishamael
Never in our lifetimes have we seen political rifts so extreme that they've damaged families, friendships, and relationships. It seems as if we've become so divided in our views, that we're incapable of finding any sort of middle ground.
But if Moby-Dick teaches us anything, it's that you don't necessarily need to have something in common to get along (or even love each other). When Ishmael first encounters Queequeg, he is frightened and appalled by the tatted-up South Pacific Islander. To Ishmael, Queequeg's customs and religious practices are strange and outlandish. But Ishmael and Queequeg still manage to become fast friends, share a bed, and even take part in a sort of marriage to one another. It's the ultimate bromance.
So, what changed? In a nutshell, they accept each other's beliefs and traditions without trying to change them. Imagine what would have happened if Ishmael started preaching Quakerism to Queequeg, or Queequeg attempted to make Ishmael try human flesh! What works in their friendship is that, though they don't always agree, they never belittle, mock, or disparage the personal beliefs of the other—something we could all try to embrace a little more in 2020.
Lessons on Equality: The Pequod
Herman Melville wrote and published Moby-Dick in the mid-1800s, when the United States was starkly divided along racial lines. At the time of its publication, it would be another decade before the start of the bloody American Civil War, and 12 years before Lincoln would declare more than 3 million African American slaves free through the Emancipation Proclamation.
You wouldn't know any of this while reading Moby-Dick. Mostly because the Pequod is manned by a pretty harmonious crew of varied races and backgrounds. Not only that, every single one is onboard as a free man earning a fair wage. In Melville's world, the crew is hired and paid wages according to the value they can bring to the ship—it has nothing to do with race or skin color.
Take, for example, Ishmael. Due to his inexperience working on whale ships (this is his first time), he's paid a rather measly wage when he gets hired on. Queequeg, on the other hand, is paid a lot more. Why? Because, as a capable and fearless harpooner, he has a lot more of value to offer the Pequod. In the small world of the ship, seamen are judged by their skill, not the color of their skin. Sure, it was under the control of the rabidly insane Captain Ahab, but it was also an example of a true meritocracy.
Perhaps this is an optimistic interpretation of this hefty tome, but I like to think these lessons of love and equality are what we're really meant to take away from Moby-Dick. In some ways, it seems as if Melville wrote the world as he hoped it would be, not how it was, and that's perhaps the greatest lesson of all.
There's always hope.
What are some positive lessons you like about Moby-Dick? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!