Hear me out: 'Heathers' is basically 'Moby Dick'
Today, October 18, Moby Dick turns 163 years old. OK, that’s pretty old. But after one of our readers watched Heathers, she realized the classic book about a giant whale has a lot in common with the iconic teen high school movie. Here’s her brilliant theory:
High school, sophomore year, 1996. Moby-Dick is required reading. My English teacher doesn’t even make us read the whole book. She lets us skip through the “boring whaling parts”—her words. This basically instills in the minds of our entire sophomore class that whaling, or as I liked to call it at the time “hunting on the sea,” is honestly just one big snore.
I have always assumed that Ms. Skip Over Parts was a disciple of The Sharp and Clever English Teacher’s Reverse Psychology Handbook (the most useful of all English teacher handbooks) (this is a made-up handbook) because it worked. I ended up loving Herman Melville and reading the whole book and lots of his short stories. On my own. Outside of class time.
English teachers everywhere are doing happy dances right now.
Flash forward to a few months later that year, when my sister and I are lazing around the house, probably eating ravioli from the can and drinking nonstop Mr. Pibbs (yes, we were disgusting teenagers), watching Heathers late at night on TBS. We get to the scene where Veronica (Winona Ryder) is lying on her bed at night, upset by the world’s general awfulness, when J.D. (Christian Slater) stalker-pops into her room quoting lines from Moby-Dick.
AND THEN MY FRAGILE YOUNG MIND EXPLODED.
The whale (an elusive, incredibly powerful white whale) = all three Heathers (an elusive, incredibly powerful group of mean girls).
I can tell you’re stunned at the brilliance of this theory already.
Ahab = J.D.
This makes total sense when you think about it. Ahab has a crazy, single-minded obsession with killing the whale. J.D. has a crazy, single-minded obsession with killing the popular kids (the Heathers).
Ishmael = Veronica. Obviously, the narrators align. We see both worlds through their eyes. No, I am not on drugs right now.
And then we have the overlapping themes in both Moby-Dick and Heathers: revenge, defiance, friendship, madness, and death.
More evidence, you say? Okay, here’s this: I didn’t even realize when I first made this magical connection that Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is actually reading Moby-Dick in the iconic croquet scene at the beginning of the movie. And she’s part of the whale! The whale is something unattainable! It’s high school popularity! It’s power! It’s the ephemeral thing that haunts and eludes you at every turn! But that will ultimately destroy you when you finally get it!
This is a lot to take in, I know.
Also, when Heather Duke rises to power after the first Heather’s death-by-Hull-Clean, she’s actually more evil than Heather #1—just like the whale seems to become more malevolently powerful each time someone tries to thwart it.
Jealous much? Of course you are. Who wouldn’t be jealous of someone who has spent way too much time overthinking a somewhat nebulous yet amazingly probable literary connection to a fine film that came out over a quarter of a century ago?
And I’m not even done yet.
Much later in the film, J.D. says this to Heather Duke: “Moby-Dick is dunked. The white whale drank some bad plankton and splashed through the coffee table, and now it’s your turn to take the helm.”
And although he’s implying that Heather D. is the new Ahab, he’s really just setting her up, in his own Ahab-style, as the new white whale in an effort to win back Veronica. Because high school wouldn’t be fun for psychotic J.D. if he didn’t have a reason to put on his people-hunting hat. Ahab comes to be defined by his vengeance against Moby-Dick; J.D. would just be another sort-of-cute-weirdo-wearing-black without his vengeance quest against the sucky popular kids.
Also, there’s this interaction between Veronica and J.D. at school a little later in the film after J.D. has successfully propped up Heather D. as the new queen of Westerburg High.
Veronica: “I was thinking more along the lines of slitting Heather Duke’s wrists open, making it look like suicide.”
J.D.: “Ah, now you’re talking. I’ve already started underlining meaningful passages in her copy of Moby-Dick, if you know what I mean.”
We do, J.D. We know exactly what you mean.
And then, the denouements: Ishmael, aka Veronica, is the only survivor at the end of Melville’s story. Ahab, like J.D., essentially self-destructs.
As J.D. would say, “Now that’s deep.”
You’re welcome. Now go find Heathers on Netflix and I dare you not to think of people-hunting on the sea at any point or make even more tangential literary connections to a majorly awesome 1980s teen movie.
And please try to figure out how strip croquet or Betty Finn fit in for me.
Sandra lives in Austin by way of Bermuda, Florida, Italy, and New York City. She edits books mostly by day and plays competitive skee-ball at night. She’s contributed articles to IndieWire, New York Arts Magazine, and Texas Monthly, among others. You can follow her @OgleIsAVerb or on her blog.