Between Melville’s Masterwork and Aronofsky’s The Whale

The Whale (Poster Segment)

At its world premiere during the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky’s drama, The Whale, received a six-minute standing ovation after the film came to a close and the credits began to roll. Lead Brendan Fraser, doubtless like many in the cheering audience, found it difficult to hold back his own tears at such an applause. I had seen the viral clip before I knew anything about the film–Fraser donning a suit, standing tall fore and center stage, the large cast of his crewmates behind him applauding his achievement. A moving sight, it was enough to entice me to see the movie. And like Fraser, his costars, and many others in attendance both that night of its premiere, as well as the Sunday afternoon that I caught the matinee, by the end of the film I, too, could not withhold my tears.

The film, based on the 2012 play by Samuel Hunter, follows Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a middle-aged English instructor who teaches an online course at a local university. Charlie lives with severe obesity; he’s housebound and edging immobility at the start of the film, confined to a wheelchair by the end. His friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, helps him in his day-to-day activities and monitors his worsening health, which increasingly takes a psychological toll on her. And despite her repeated attempts to get Charlie to go to the hospital, he refuses. It’s revealed that while Charlie had always been on the bigger side, after the death of his male partner his health began to worsen, and using food to cope with depression, Charlie succumbed to his growing weight. Despondent, depressed, and nearing death, Charlie takes one last shot at redemption and attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he abandoned when she was eight, along with her mother Mary (Samantha Morton). This is the setup for the film, the story of which spans the length of one week and takes place solely in Charlie’s dark apartment, most of the plot driven by lines of dialogue between only four characters: Charlie, Liz, Ellie, and the Christian missionary who stumbles his way into their lives, a boy named Thomas (Ty Simpkins).

It seems a simple film with a simple premise on the surface; few characters equal few scenes equal few themes equal few interpretations, etc. But the film’s seeming simplicity belies a complexity whose depths plumb far from its turbulent surface and into the heartstrings of the viewer. Beneath the film’s narrative flows an entangled web of love, grief, guilt, and regret; not to mention a reckoning with imminent death, itself a dual-edged sword wrought with all that could have been different, should have been different, and all the impending consequences to impact those who will remain after we’re gone. These themes and more underlie the conflicts which occur between the characters, conflicts which not only progress the plot of the film from its disquieting start to its emotional end, but which also find their strength in the writing and the performances of all the actors, Fraser especially.

It is evident that Aronofsky’s directing, Hunter’s writing, the actors’ performances, and the emotionality borne from the combination of those three parts, comprise a certain cinematic superfecta which elevates the film into its exceptional rank, invoking the strong response that it has in critics and cinephiles alike. But there exists a fifth component to the puzzle, one more subtle and which, for me, contributes even further to the film’s undeniable mastery: the direct and indirect allusions to the novel whence the film bears its name, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick or, The Whale. Surely most will know the title; many will know the book; and still quite a lot will know the general story, possibly too the characters and plot-driving conflict. Its reputation has long permeated American literature, especially in the last century after the ‘Melville revival’ was incited by writers like D.H. Lawrence who, among those that rediscovered Melville’s masterwork, so proclaimed its significance.

Like The Whale, the novel may too be simply summed up: a man named Ishmael, looking for adventure, joins a ragtag group of sailors headed by the eccentric Captain Ahab, who sets off to find and destroy the elusive ‘White Whale,’ Moby Dick, which had taken his leg years ago. And yet, simple as it seems, the novel spurns easy summation, and therein lies the first affinity between novel and film: how a simple appearance conceals incredible complexity.

Surely most Melville critics and Moby Dick scholars would dissuade any reader from attempting to identify what the White Whale might symbolize since the analytical nature of such an endeavor might detract from the pure, unbridled adventure at the heart of the novel. However, I would argue that harpooning a specific image, individual, or idea behind the White Whale is but another adventure within itself, one which does not denigrate nor diminish the novel’s but rather enhances it. And as it pertains to the The Whale, the White Whale is but one entity whose symbolism offers a thread into the cinematic subtleties buried within Aronofsky’s vision; other characters like Ishmael and Captain Ahab, too, find their analogs in the film. Now whether such connections were intentional on the part of the filmmaker and writers or are the result of a zealous, over-reaching viewer, I think it matters little. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” So, as perilous as it might be, let us set sail into these waters and navigate the connections between novel and film.

First and foremost, a direct allusion to the novel nearly inaugurates the film, all but overtly pronouncing the literary ties which continue to weave in and out of the film as it progresses. The opening shot depicts the online English class which Charlie teaches; the sequence is dominated by the constant zooming into the black frame of Charlie’s turned-off camera with only the name “Instructor” in the corner. When the entire screen is completely black, sounds of waves can be heard as the film’s title The Whale emerges into frame. Within moments, we are in Charlie’s dark apartment. Charlie is engaged in a certain onanistic activity but is suddenly wracked with extreme chest pain. Clearly frightened, he struggles call Liz, but when he drops his phone, we see him take a folder with papers, open it, and begin reading through the pain: “In the amazing book Moby Dick by the author Herman…” Suddenly, there’s a knock, but it’s not Liz; it’s Thomas, the Christian missionary and New Life member, who, while canvassing door to door, has happened upon Charlie. In the apartment, Thomas, unsure of how to help, offers to call an ambulance, but Charlie only pushes the essay towards him and says, “Read this to me.” Thomas begins,

In the amazing book Moby Dick by the author Herman Melville, the author recounts his story of being at sea. In the first part of his book the author, calling himself Ishmael, is in a small seaside town and he is sharing a bed with a man named Queequeg…And I felt the saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while. This book made me think about my own life, and then it made me feel glad for my…

Charlie manages to calm himself down and regain control of his breathing. When Thomas asks why he wanted him to read the essay, Charlie says, “Because I thought I was dying. And I wanted to hear it one last time.”

Immediately established is the importance of the essay, an essay about Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick but whose author is yet to be revealed. There are parts of the essay which return as motifs throughout the film, but the introduction of this essay, one on this specific novel, this early in the film, like the film’s title, is an overt statement that there are ties between the novel and film. On the surface, the eponymous whale of The Whale is Charlie, just as the eponymous whale of Moby Dick or, The Whale is Moby Dick, or ‘The Whale.’ To this, even the film’s advertisement poster testifies: front and center Charlie sits before a wall of books in the background, his gaze cast leftward, his eyes carrying a morose tinge of severity, the title of the film with Fraser’s name emblazoned in light blue letters towards the lower corner at the righthand side. He’s undoubtedly the protagonist in the film, which strays slightly from the novel. Often, Ishmael and Captain Ahab remain the characters in dispute in identifying the novel’s protagonist. However, the novel revolves entirely around the White Whale; without Moby Dick, there is no Moby Dick.

As the characters in the novel revolve around the White Whale, so too do the characters in Aronofsky’s film revolve around Charlie, who remains almost dead center throughout the film, and for no character is this more the case than Liz. Charlie is Liz’s White Whale. He is at the center of all Liz’s concerns, duties, and obligations during the span of the film. Like Ahab, Liz is physically, emotionally, and mentally invested in Charlie; however, as Ahab strives to catch and kill the White Whale in the novel, Liz strives to care and cure Charlie, to keep him alive, at least for a little while longer. She runs errands for him, performs medical services, provides company for him, and does so not only because Charlie is her friend, but also because Charlie is the last connection Liz has to her late brother Alan. As it’s revealed later in the film, Alan was Charlie’s partner who committed suicide for reasons related, a Liz confesses to Thomas the missionary, to the religious organization New Life, of which Thomas is a member. Liz’s parents were involved in the church and denied Alan’s death as anything other than a great accident, a tragedy unconnected to religious shame or expectations, which ultimately severed the already straining relationship between Liz and her parents. Alan was all the family that Liz had left, and so caring for Charlie keeps alive the last tether to her brother. While Charlie may be considered Liz’s White Whale, it is also her brother Alan who resides behind him, his memory and her love for him still alive in Charlie.

Moreover, there’s a specific scene which also alludes to this notion that Liz represents Ahab and Charlie the Whale. It happens early in the film; Liz has just taken Charlie’s blood pressure and Thomas has just left. Liz says to Charlie, “You have to go to the hospital Charlie, this has gone way too far,” to which Charlie responds, “And rack up tens of thousands of dollars of hospital bills, that I’ll never be able to pay back, ever”; Liz: “This affects me too, you know? You’re my friend,” Charlie: “I know, I’m sorry.” Liz: “You say you’re sorry one more time I’m gonna shove a knife right into you, I swear to God–”; Charlie: “Go ahead, what’s it gonna do? My internal organs are two feet in at least.” Liz, standing above Charlie who’s seated on the couch, then proceeds to jab her fingers into his chest in a stabbing motion, making him writhe and laugh, to which she smiles then joins him on the couch. It’s a moment of levity, a nice reprieve to the dark soberness already established by this point. But within Liz’s jabbing Charlie, I cannot help but see a subtle allusion to Ahab harpooning the White Whale, two different but similar motions, each cast in different light, but both with a tinge of frustration and impending catastrophe.

Spatially Charlie is situated at the center of the film; other characters physically revolve around him. When Ellie enters the film, arriving to Charlie’s apartment for the first time, she wanders around his space while he remains seated on the couch. Like a satellite orbiting its star, Ellie revolves around Charlie as she explores his apartment. Each time she walks to one side of the apartment, behind the couch where Charlie sits, she forces him to turn his head, reposition his body, strain to see his daughter whom he hasn’t seen in many years. It is almost as if Ellie is taunting him with her movement, granting him but a brief glimpse before moving out of vision again. In a dynamic that inverts the more salient “Charlie as the Whale” analog, Charlie takes the role of Ahab, straining to see the White Whale, which is Ellie, who emerges into view for an instant before moving away, submerging into the dark waters again.

There’s another moment which limns such a dynamic, and it comes at the end of this scene, Ellie’s first visit to Charlie’s apartment. Just before she is about to leave through the door, Ellie turns to Charlie and says, “Stand up and walk over to me.” Charlie, confused, responds, “What?” to which Ellie repeats herself, “Come over here. Walk toward me.” She tells him not to use his walker: “Without that thing. Just stand up and come over here.” Charlie strains to stand up, using his side table as leverage, but just before he’s about to straighten up and walk, the table collapses, and he falls back onto the couch. It’s an event which comes again in the final moments of the film, but one that recalls a certain episode in Moby Dick. In Chapter 100, the Pequod encounters another vessel out on the open waters, an English ship called Samuel Enderby, headed by a one Captain Boomer, who, like Ahab, has also lost a limb to the White Whale, not his leg, but an arm. The two ships parallel, Ahab inquires about the White Whale, and Boomer invites him aboard. What ensues is a description of how Captain Ahab, with his one ivory leg, struggles to clamber up the rope ladder on the side of the Samuel Enderby:

So, deprived of one leg, and the strange ship of course being altogether unsupplied with the kindly invention, Ahab now found himself abjectly reduced to a clumsy landsman again; hopelessly eyeing the uncertain changeful height he could hardly hope to attain. (447)

Unable to do so, Ahab is eventually rescued from his embarrassment by Boomer’s sailors who lower down a “massive curved blubber-hook” in which Ahab secures his position and is hoisted aloft and onto the deck. The humor and levity invoked by Ahab’s struggle stands in contrast to the severity and sadness invoked by Charlie’s struggle, one provoked by the sadism of Ellie, prevalent in the first half of the film. Yet despite such a contrast in effects, the actions find a certain affinity which, though perhaps singular in its instance, bolsters the analog of Charlie as Ahab and Ellie as the Whale.

However, it is the reverse of this dynamic–Charlie as the Whale, Ellie as Ahab–that seems to persist more so throughout the film. Too, more interestingly, not only is Ellie a foil to Liz, despite both finding their symbolic counterparts in Ahab, but Ellie’s character development in The Whale is an inversion of Ahab’s in Moby Dick. While Liz wants to help Charlie, Ellie, for most of the film, wants just the opposite: to harm Charlie, to retaliate against him for the pain and confusion and heartache that he had inflicted on her by abandoning her when she was only eight years old. That permanent trauma, festering for eight more years, has bloomed into hatred, and she seeks revenge, which makes her more like Captain Ahab, who strives to take revenge on Moby Dick for taking his leg. Charlie abandoning Ellie, an event which exists outside of the film, mirrors the event in which Ahab first clashed with the White Whale and lost his leg, an event which exists outside of the novel. The pain and trauma caused by each these individual events, for both characters, has inspired not solely a desire but an unquenchable thirst for retribution, to take back that which has been taken away.

But Charlie is not the only character who embodies the White Whale to Ellie’s Ahab; Thomas too takes the form of White Whale in a certain capacity. Thomas, being the evangelical missionary, comes to believe that God had sent him to Charlie, to arrive in his time of need, knowing that Charlie would need spiritual guidance since he’s at the end of his life. Thomas’s religiosity calls to mind the more overt religious allegories of the novel, the White Whale embodying God, the inevitability of religious belief, morality, etc, symbols which have long been debated among literary critics and scholars. But beyond the religious aspects of both book and film, Thomas represents the White Whale for Ellie, as, in the second half of the film, he becomes the object of Ellie’s pursuit and persecution.

In a midway twist, it is revealed that Ellie has discovered that Thomas is not who he’s said he is, that he has been lying about his affiliation with New Life. She confronts him, corners him in Charlie’s apartment, demanding that he reveal the truth about who he is. She says, “You’re not from New Life…There’s a kid a grade below me who goes there. He said they stopped doing door-to-door stuff last year when this lady was out preaching or whatever and a guy answered his door with no clothes on.” Thomas, like a deer in the headlights, makes to leave, but Ellie prevents him. The exchange, thwarting the expectations of the audience, invokes a common character dynamic in the novel. Ellie, again as Ahab, has symbolically launched her harpoon into Thomas, who like the White Whale, strives to get away. She descends upon him, attacking with the revelation that she knows his secret, just as Ahab descends upon the White Whale. The scene that follows reveals that Ellie is recording Thomas’s confession through the door, and along with the photos that she had been taking of him all throughout their time together, it becomes clear that Ellie’s intentions are to ruin him, which she attempts to do. In this way, Ellie is even more like Ahab whose intention are to kill the White Whale.

Evident from both the beginning of the film and the beginning of the novel is the coldness which Ellie and Ahab share, an unmistakable similarity which symbolically binds them. It is this coldness which drives Ellie to wish that Charlie will die, so to quickly collect her inheritance and delight in what is, to her, Charlie’s inevitable comeuppance; it is also this coldness which drives her attempts to ruin Thomas; and it is this coldness which drives all the other detestable acts which her mother cites when reconnecting with Charlie in the second half of the film. Captain Ahab’s coldness expresses itself in various forms throughout the novel, but one scene stands out as most demonstrative of this side of his character: Chapter 128 “The Pequod Meets the Rachel.” Captain Ahab and his crew encounter the Rachel upon the open seas, a ship headed by Captain Gardiner who has lost his two young boys in whaleboats which have gone missing. He asks Ahab for help in his search, begging to borrow his boat for only 48 hours, pleading with his story so moving that it stirs Ahab’s first mate, Stubb; but Ahab coldly refuses:

“Avast,” cried Ahab–“touch not a rope-yarn;” then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word–“Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good bye, good bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go.” (579)

However, while Ahab’s coldness, over the course of the novel, devolves into a certain madness born of a violent obsession, a madness which, in the end, ushers forth the early demise of almost all his crew, Ellie’s coldness, over the course of the film, evolves into a warming empathy for the father whom she so despised for half her life. Ellie’s empathy at the end of the film directly opposes Captain Ahab’s lack of empathy at the end of the novel, which renders him blind to the safety and wellbeing of his crew. Ahab’s favoring the White Whale over his men ensures the downfall of both his men and himself, but Ellie’s emergence from the hatred she holds for Charlie into the final moment of reckoning at the end of the film, ushers forth an emotional, epiphanic ending, in which both Ellie and Charlie achieve absolution for their past actions–a sequence of events set forth by the revelation of the Moby Dick essay: that it was Ellie’s essay all along.

While the ending of Moby Dick is a bleak denouement, replete with death and destruction, the ending to Aronofsky’s film remains in that ambiguous space between tragedy and redemption, where the definitions of death and a second chance blur, break down, and perhaps become one and the same. In the final moments of the film, when Charlie musters the strength to stand up and walk to his daughter, triumphing over the obstacle which had before dominated him, as he reaches out his hand to her, he floats upward toward a great white light before the scene cuts to Charlie standing on the beach, the ocean’s tide lapping at his feet submerged in the sand. Invoking the photograph of Charlie and Alan, as well as Charlie’s memory of being with Ellie and Mary at the beach all the many years ago, this final scene bookends the film with an overt allusion to the novel, just as the opening scenes did. Like the White Whale, Charlie too has returned to the sea.

Samuel Hunter has called the film a story of “hard-won hope,” which I think too can apply to Melville’s novel–just one of the multitude of readings to be found and explored. And as with the novel, the film too has a multitude of readings, doubtless many more than the few connections between novel and film that I’ve outlined in this essay. In this endeavor, I am aware that there is surely more to be said, more connections to discover, more interpretations to explore, more ideas to forge. And it’s for this reason I believe that, as the novel has withstood the test of time, so too will Aronofsky’s film, as cinematic work whose depths plumb far from the surface and into a literary abyss of Melville’s making.