Doom. So Lawrence proclaims in his chapter on Melville’s leviathan in Studies in Classic American Literature: Moby-Dick, a prophecy masquerading as sea-epic, foretelling that “terrible fatality,” the end “of our white day.” Lawrence is awed and appalled by Melville’s “last ghastly hunt,” by the white desire to consume, which ultimately leads to the White Whale itself—the symbol of whiteness, the “deepest blood-being of the white race”—and the self-cannibalistic suicide of white civilization. Lawrence asks the inevitable next question: “if the Great White Whale sank the ship of the Great White Soul in 1851, what’s been happening ever since?” What is America today?
Quaaludes. And prostitutes. And fraudulent penny stock brokers.
Or so Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street suggests.
To use Lawrence’s language, “At first you are put off by the style.” The Wolf of Wall Street is a debauch, carnivalesque trip, three hours of girls and drugs and dwarf throwing. It is “clumsy” and “clownish” in places, “spurious” in others: almost like the movie is “trying to put something over you,” as Lawrence said of Moby-Dick.
Thirty-two minutes in, Belfort, played by DiCaprio, promises the employees of his infant firm that they’ll be targeting “the wealthiest one percent of Americans,” or, as he so eloquently puts it, “Moby fuckin Dicks.” He promises to teach each of them to be “Captain fuckin Ahab”—too which one man says, “Captain who?” The group jeers and curses at him, and then promptly forgets about it as Belfort charges on with his manic demonstration. The Moby-Dick reference is parachuted in and then discarded in under a minute.
Not completely. Moby fucking Dick is never just a whale: “Of course he is a symbol,” Lawrence says. The reference, though brief, is necessary for an understanding of what The Wolf of Wall Street is doing.
In structure alone Scorsese mimics Melville. Long and ostentatious, rife with digressions, unnecessary scenes, and superfluous plot points, The Wolf, much like The Whale, is that painful sort of work many experience but few understand. Moments like the conversation between Belfort and his father where they discuss “the bush” hint at similarly discursive chapters in Moby-Dick. As Melville writes in “The Crotch”: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.” The Wolf of Wall Street bounces, like Moby-Dick, from topic to topic, diving into the different classes of prostitutes, the features of multi-million dollar yachts, the history and effects of quaaludes, the subtleties of fraudulent stock-brokerage. Scorsese gives his viewers a cetology of Wall Street.
On a lower level, Scorsese draws from Melville’s rich cast of characters to populate the screen, especially with his stars. Matthew McConaughey plays Mark Hanna in the movie, the cocaine snorting, loud-mouthed big shot at L.F. Rothschild who takes Belfort under his wing. Introduced early on, Hanna is the broker everyone wants to be. He does what he wants, says what he wants, gets what he wants. He is the broker, the archetype incarnate. And then, like the Moby-Dick plug, he’s dropped, hardly ten minutes after his first scene.
This narrative oddity could be glossed over, but readers of Moby-Dick should be suspicious. In Melville’s Whale, a comparable figure, Bulkington, is first seen in Chapter 3, “The Spouter-Inn.” Depicted as the paragon of whaling men, scholars consider him the one Melville originally intended to be Ishmael’s companion. But a scarce twenty chapters later he’s whisked away in the “The Lee Shore,” never to be seen or heard of again. Bulkington and Hanna promise much, only to be forgotten.
Ishmael and Belfort strike a similar balance, each as narrator and guide through their respective stories. Belfort’s consciousness, like Ishmael’s, roves in and out of the narrative, sometimes present in the scene with the viewer, sometimes outside of it looking in, or in the future looking back. He repeatedly turns to address the camera, pausing the action to explain some detail, and then stopping midway to say how the reader is either too stupid or bored to understand. His sarcasm tastes of disdain in places, much like Ishmael in “The Prairie”: “I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.” Charismatic and intelligent, Belfort and Ishmael command the attention of their audiences only to demean them to their faces.
To dive deeper, Belfort’s narration is remarkably similar to that of Ishmael, but his narrative is more resemblant of Ahab and his monomaniac quest. Belfort sacrifices his relationship with his wife for wealth: he, like Ahab, “widowed that poor girl when [he] married her.” His business model: to not hang up the phone “until [the] client” (remember those Whales from earlier?) “buys or fucking dies.” In the third hour of the film he almost wavers, like Ahab in “The Symphony,” only to crush his doubts once and for all and plunge headlong into the maw of his own destruction. In tow, hundreds of fools blinded by his fervor. As Lawrence says of Ahab, Belfort doesn’t destroy himself alone: he sinks “all the lot of them.”
If Lawrence were alive today to see The Wolf of Wall Street his horror at the conclusion of Moby-Dick would only be compounded: “Oh God, oh God, what next,” he says, “when the Peqoud has sunk?” Wall Street, Scorsese says. The ship is replaced with a building, but the insatiable hunger is still there. America hasn’t changed. It is the land where Ahab’s and Jordan Belfort’s can pursue their monomaniac desires with impunity, crushing their fellow men beneath their feet in the hopes of satiety. The death knell of America was struck in 1851: as Lawrence felt in 1923 and Scorsese showed in 2013, the bell still rings, louder than ever before.
Lawrence, D. H. “Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.” Studies in Classic American Literature. Class Resource. PDF.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
The Wolf of Wall Street. Dir. Martin Scorsese. 2013. Film.