I mentioned before that Updike’s “Rabbit, Run” has the reverse structure of a movie: On the first page the young husband willfully chooses to run away, baffling everyone he knows, and only in the second half does he return home to his stifling town and deal with the external complications that are ruining his marriage.
“Moby-Dick” is also a “character motivates, plot complicates” story. Ishmael just decides to go to sea for no good reason, and only in the second half does the plot complicate things and make him doubt his decision. Let’s look at Ishmael’s odd explanation of his motivation on page one:
- Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Movies are, by their nature, about the life of the body but books are often about the life of the mind. As I said here, a movie hero’s behavior must be understandable, because if we cannot fathom the mind of a movie hero, then we blame the moviemakers, not ourselves. After all, they should know that we can only spend two hours in the movie theater, and that’s not enough time to dissect inexplicable information.
In books like “Moby-Dick,” on the other hand, we readers are committing ourselves to spending at least 20 hours inside Ishmael’s head. In this case, a hero with a bizarre motivation becomes an asset, not a liability. Ishmael’s absurd thought process assures us that we have an interesting enigma on our hands, one that’s big enough to justify the 20-hour investigation we’ve just committed ourselves to.
As I said yesterday, Jaws would never work if Brody just decided to go out and kill a shark, because he would have to have way too many speeches and/or voice-overs to explain that choice. We go to a move to see people act, not to hear them explain their actions. But we read a book to enter a character’s mind, and, while we’re there, we’re more than willing to hear bizarre rambling explanations of their behavior.