The Hunt That Came First: Moby Dick: Background information when reading And The Ocean Was Our Sky

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And The Ocean Was Our Sky

by Patrick Ness

And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness X
And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
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    Sep 2018, 160 pages

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Michelle Anya Anjirbag
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The Hunt That Came First: Moby Dick

This article relates to And The Ocean Was Our Sky

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Illustration from Moby DickAnd the Ocean Was Our Sky is a re-imagining of Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Ness's text is a very experimental adaptation of Melville's, and one need not know Melville's text to understand it. However, some background on this American classic – recognized widely as a Great American Novel – may well serve to add further depths and context to Ness's contemporary story.

Look at any meme, mug, poster, or listicle that purports to include the most famous opening lines in literature, and "Call me Ishmael" is sure to be on it. Ishmael narrates a tale about his time on a whaling ship, the Pequod, during Captain Ahab's quest to destroy Moby Dick – the whale who took his leg. Ahab's desperate pursuit of vengeance, despite the prophesy that anyone who pursued Moby Dick would be destroyed, descends into madness and quite literally destroys his crew: he kills three of his harpooners to baptize a new harpoon with which to kill the whale, sailors drown, the ship catches fire, madness spreads. Eventually, the Pequot is destroyed, and Ishmael escapes to tell the tale.

Knowing the synopsis brings home the parallels between Ishmael and the main character of Ness's novel, a whale named Bathsheba, and therefore makes more apparent how the two texts can be read in dialogue with each other. Symbolically, both texts play with concepts of surfaces and depths, of predestination and the power of prophecy, and, even, whiteness as absoluteness. Both texts allow multiple readings, on ego, Godliness and Godlessness, and to whom belongs the determination of a man's soul. By understanding Ahab's pursuit of the white whale and all it might signify, readers may better understand the complex dynamics embedded in Bathsheba's pod, and the fervor of her captain. For example, Bathsheba represents herself as somewhat separate from the crew she swims with – much like Ishmael is a dreamer, and not a "believer," Bathsheba cannot give herself over to absolute belief in a prophecy, unquestioning faith in the righteousness of her pursuit. The hunt, whether for Moby Dick the great white whale or Toby Wick the great white devil, ultimately symbolizes the struggle of the human condition. Where certain readings tie Ahab's reckless quest to a likewise reckless expansion of the American frontier, Bathsheba's own commentary on the potential foolhardiness of blind pursuit, and the refusal to believe new information because it does not fit with the prophecy, might pull forward Melville's themes in a changed world that is still grappling with many of the same existential questions.

Ultimately, Ness presents for modernity the same conflicts of selfhood that Melville's own meta-narrative, experimental novel presented to his respective contemporaries. The legacy of Moby Dick is self-evident through the existence of And the Ocean was Our Sky, and how Ness is able to play with the text to reinvent it for a new era, without losing the connection to or the power of the older text.

Illustration by Augustus Burnham Shute from an early edition of Moby Dick

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This article relates to And The Ocean Was Our Sky. It first ran in the November 14, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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