Absence is everywhere, from fish, sharks and whales seething beneath the surface of the ocean, to the stowaway Fedallah hidden in the bowels of the ship.
Even Ahab is absent until Chapter 28 when he emerges at last from a deep hold of the Pequod.
And the plot, too, disappears for long stretches of time, sounding beneath the surface of Melville’s expository prose. No wonder Melville candidly observes, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” Yes, there’s very little narrative in Moby Dick.
Various and sundry grades of invisibility lurk everywhere—and Ishmael is haunted by them.
One. Other people are mysterious entities. We see them clearly enough smoking a pipe or ascending a masthead. But who they are to become in time is perceived only dimly if at all. Take Queequeg, for instance. He’s covered in tattoos. Combine that with Ishmael’s description of him as “a creature in the transition state — neither caterpillar nor butterfly” and we have an image of a man who is emerging from a mottled chrysalis. What he’s to become when the transformation is complete is unknown to us.
Two. Subjectivity is a mystery in that we only perceive its hints and signs in others from a third-person point of view. Ahab’s storm of ideas and emotions, his motives, beliefs and passions, are experienced by him from a first-person point of view. But to everyone else, from the jocular Stub and the righteous Starbuck to the poetic-philosophic Ishmael, Ahab’s seething inner world is only divined by its manifestations, by his tortured brow and wracked body.
Three. Poetic resemblances are entirely absent — they literally don’t exist — until they are created by an Ishmael or some other wanderer and outcast who perceives things differently. Whale skin is what it is; it’s whale skin. But only Ishmael broods on it and perceives in it an “isinglass” through which the world itself is perceived, with floating motes and squigglys superimposed on it like the “finest Italian line engravings.” Without imaginative conception, poetic resemblances don’t even exist as ghosts.
Four. Just as Ahab’s brow is the body of his torment made visible, so the world itself is a sign of an unseen agency. Unlike religious believers who interpret the world optimistically, Melville strongly suggests a more pessimistic view. The world is an incarnation of malicious forces. Behind the veil of appearances, an inscrutable force fashions a world where snakes eat plump mice, where men and women devour tasty little lambs and slaughter whales to burn oil in churches and preach ever-lasting peace and compassion to the world.