Mar 5 2010

Moby-Dick

Yesterday, I finished Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale“. I have been meaning to read (or finish) this book for several years. A month ago I decided to pick it up again, start from the beginning, and read it all the way through. The underlying story is a good one (duh, it’s considered by many to be the “great american novel“) but is interrupted throughout by long discourses of whales, whaling, the anatomy of whales, the history of whales, whales in art, whale legends, whale-men (loosely defined) , sailing ships, ship minutiae, &c. While some of these digressions were interesting (I spent a great deal of time researching all the names and places mentioned), for chapters at a time I was hoping that the next few pages would kindly deposit me back into the story itself. When the story did spout again, it was interesting, but it would soon veer off to describe some other tangentially-relevant details. It was like listening to a storyteller with Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, Melville used the narrator, an educated sailor/teacher named Ishmael, to expound on all aspects of whaling, because he felt the subject was largely unknown to the public. He was determined to write a good story that was also educational. It’s also interesting to note that many of the story’s elements were based on real events.

The book follows the whaling ship Pequod around the world as the revenge-driven Captain Ahab searches the sea for the white whale Moby Dick. During the course of this ocean-spanning hunt, the reader is introduced to a number of characters including: Ishmael (narrator for most of the story), Queequeg (a south Pacific cannibal and harpooner), Ahab (ship’s captain who has forsaken all other earthly concerns for this one, soul-destroying pursuit), Pip (young black man who curiously loses his identity when abandoned to the waves), Starbuck (first mate who wrestles with thoughts of murdering Ahab so that he and ship may escape their doom), and many others. While the ending, of course, is one of the most memorable literary scenes in all American literature, the most touching scene (for me) was the abandonment of The Rachel in Chapter 128.

Much has been written about the allegory and symbolism of the story and its characters. I feel neither obligated nor capable of adding insight that hasn’t been already been elaborated upon ad infinitum. I would only suggest that having finished, readers should explore the book a little further, even if they only peruse the Wikipedia section on themes. There are a great many layers to the story and it would be a mistake not to examine those elements further.

So, what is left? I usually finish these reviews with a quote. I wanted to pick one from Queequeg, my favorite character, but there’s just too many others to choose from. I could use Ahab’s final “…to the last I grapple with thee…” but who doesn’t use that? Since I can’t make up my mind, I guess my only option is to end with a number of quotes.

“I try all things; I achieve what I can.”

“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.”

“…there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”

4.5 out of 5