It’s easy to forget that the title of Herman Melville’s most major work, Moby-Dick, has another component to it: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Fittingly, Samuel D. Hunter’s adaptation of his own play, The Whale, has plenty of nods to Moby-Dick. And not just because Charlie is “the whale” in question that everyone seems intent on “getting”—particularly a missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who wants to “convert” (or at least proselytize) Charlie in time for his imminent death. One that differs from Moby-Dick’s in that the latter is “designed” to be fat. Made for it. Humans were not. At least, not to the extent that Charlie is, presently on the verge of congestive heart failure when the audience is first introduced to him.
His death warrant is confirmed by his best friend/unpaid nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), when she informs him his blood pressure is 238 over 134. Unlike most people in his position, however, Charlie decides to do nothing about it… in other words, he refuses to do the sensible thing: seek medical help and subsequently change his lifestyle.
Another man who refuses to do the sensible thing is Captain Ahab—and yet, in a sort of inverse fashion to Charlie. Where Ahab should do nothing (read: stop obsessively pursuing Moby-Dick), Charlie should do something. Save himself. And yes, at the crux of The Whale is the Liz-touted notion that only an individual can save themselves—they cannot be saved by another. So it is that, ironically enough, Christianity and its evangelical offshoot deem accepting Jesus and their gospel as “being saved.” Because Charlie is both about to die and sympathetic to those who are looked upon with disgust (like missionaries), he humors Thomas by welcoming him into his apartment over the course of his final week on Earth. The last person he ever expected to be able to welcome, however, is his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). But it is she who has always been with him, even after he abandoned her and his now ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), for a younger man. Specifically, a student of his named Alan, who he met while teaching a class at night school. Something Charlie is certain to reiterate to Ellie when she digs the knife in about his betrayal by making Charlie’s relationship with Alan sound more inappropriate than it was. He would also like to point out that they waited until the class was over to officially get together.
One might say Charlie was Alan’s “white whale” (a metaphor enhanced by Alan being a person of color). For the elusiveness of Charlie, as a married man and father, is likely part of the thrill of Alan’s chase upon their initial encounters. As for the “real Moby-Dick,” Melville had based some of his tale off a white whale known as Mocha Dick (indeed, that was what the book was going to be titled…thankfully, it was not), who was found in the waters off Mocha Island. Charlie, in contrast, has become something of his own island thanks to the masses of fat he’s grown on his body. A rebellion against everything (society, finding love again, Alan himself), and a means to kill himself slowly and painfully.
In between his eating binges and near-death experiences (replete with heart palpitations), Charlie insists on reciting the same essay over and over as a means to recenter himself and become “zen.” The essay, written on Moby-Dick, is clearly from the perspective of a jejune writer. One we later find out is Ellie at the time she was in eighth grade, the essay having been sent to Charlie by Mary. Attracted to its simplicity and honesty, Charlie obviously sees something of himself in it, reciting, like religious scripture, “…and I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew that the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.” Ishmael undeniably did have a sad story, especially if one is looking at it from the perspective of him denying his homosexual desire for Queequeg, the Polynesian cannibal that Ishmael “shar[es] a bed with,” to borrow Ellie’s phrasing of their erotic dynamic. And yes, cannibalism might indeed serve as a symbolic token of the all-consuming nature of repressed homosexual lust— “a love that devours and destroys,” as critic Caleb Crain puts it in his essay, “Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels.”
In this regard, such a parallel makes plenty of sense in The Whale, wherein Charlie has been subject to his own all-consuming homosexual love for Alan. For not only has he given up everything to succumb to its pleasures, but he’s now also dealing with its many residual pains after losing Alan to suicide. Does it mean that all his sacrifice—his surrender to “the temptation of the flesh”—was for naught? Or should he treasure the time he did have with Alan, just as Ahab should treasure the time he had with his leg, and Ishmael the time he had with Queequeg?
Like Charlie, Ishmael will endure an incredible loss. One that we never have to see him live with in the aftermath. In this regard, one might say that Charlie’s existence is the aftermath of such grief. Would Ishmael have eaten himself silly by stuffing his face with whale meat in order to cope? Probably not. It was a different era, and self-indulgence wasn’t so tolerated among the hoi polloi. Plus, the internet didn’t yet exist to make Ishmael’s working from home options more accommodating for a would-be shut-in.
As for the religious undercurrent in both Moby-Dick and The Whale, the former’s commences when Ishmael and Queequeg going to a sermon given by Father Mapple, the topic of which is Jonah… of “Jonah and the Whale” fame. In essence, Jonah took up his mission for God after spending three days in the belly of a “big fish” (later just referred to as a “whale”) that saved him from drowning, ultimately transporting him to shore and “salvation” itself. However, the biblical description of how “it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” doesn’t make the act sound all that filled with beneficence. Just as Thomas has his own non-altruistic intentions for wanting to “nab” the “depraved” whale called Charlie.
Apropos of “spiritual experiences,” Moby-Dick’s explorations of good versus evil, as well as spirituality itself vis-à-vis the existence of God, are also themes that The Whale is determined to address as Charlie’s life comes to an end. While Thomas sees the Bible as clear in its message to condemn those “like” Charlie and Alan for their sins, Charlie views it as an incredibly sad story about the large bulk of humanity eventually getting sucked into the depths of hell. To prove that even Alan knew he was “sinning,” however, Thomas points out a passage that Charlie’s deceased partner had underlined—one about the renewal of the spirit through the jettisoning of the flesh. In other words, leaving this temporal world in order to do just that. As Charlie renounces his own existence for far different reasons, the biblical backdrop of rain—a flood, as it were—cascading down behind him (as the viewer is made certain to see through Charlie’s windows) adds to the intensity of what we know to be inevitable.
The significance of religion as a plague unto itself is additionally underscored by the “time period” Hunter has opted to set the film version of his play in. For, in lieu of the Obama era, we’re now blatantly in 2016, as made clear by the airing of news footage of the day, touting Ted Cruz winning over Donald Trump as the favorite of the GOP during the primaries in Idaho. Where Charlie himself resides (namely, a small town called Moscow, now made “big” by the “Idaho murders” that took place there in late 2022). And so does a cultish church called New Life, comprised of evangelicals who believe the end is nigh. Here, too, Hunter has made another swap, trading the Mormon of his play for the evangelical of his movie. The apocalypse might be taken more literally by someone like Thomas, but for Charlie (and most of the characters in Moby-Dick, for that matter), the end is coming on a far more personal level. The contrast between these two figures mirrors the contrast between Ahab, the dogmatic and monomaniacal one, and Ishmael, the open-minded, more rational one.
Ishmael’s association with greater objectivity than someone such as Ahab is why Melville chooses to narrate from his viewpoint, manifest in an insecure line like, “But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself? I must, else all these chapters might be naught.” Charlie seems to feel a similar way, hence his own peculiar monomania with regard to Ellie’s essay, which blatantly reflects his “sad life.” And what is perhaps a futile search for its meaning (ergo, his fixation on ensuring that Ellie succeeds so that he can know he did at least one thing right—this so often being an emblem of why people have children at all: to “correct” their sins… only to antithetically create more). Ahab’s single-minded pursuit of the whale is just that: an extreme foil for his search for meaning—to make life mean something.
On the flipside of the multi-layered correlating metaphors of Moby-Dick and The Whale, Ahab might well represent society itself, chasing “the whale” that is Charlie right out of existence merely for being who he is. His pure, authentic self. His “condition” is not malicious (granted, it actually is… to himself). It is, simply put, an extension of his nature. Wallowing and self-pitying though it may be. Charlie, as all multi-dimensional characters, has his flaws—but he is neither inherently good or evil (the same goes for Thomas). To the chagrin of cut-and-dried religious doctrine, he rests, as most of us do, somewhere in between the spectrum based on varying actions “committed.” Actions that can swing toward either side of the “good versus evil” spectrum at any given moment.