Reading Moby Dick

MobyThumb2by Brad Nelson  11/4/13
Note: I will often write reviews of a book in the form of a journal. Rather than trying to sum-up a gargantuan 800-page book at the very end, I take it in chunks and write more of a narrative. You may find this boring. If so, it’s appropriate in this case.

From June, 2008:

I’m trying to read Moby Dick right now. It’s rather thick. Melville’s style, while smart, isn’t smooth. It’s very hard to maintain interest. Has anybody read it all the way through? Is it worth it?

The version of Moby Dick that I’m reading is full of these wonderful little illustrations by Rockwell Kent. The book jacket says they are reproductions of the illustrations and page design created by Rockwell Kent for Random House in 1930. I don’t know if this is high art, but they really are a pleasure to look at and they compliment the black-and-white rather stark mood set by Melville so far in this story. His literary style remains a bit impermeable at times, but it’s starting to lighten up and branch out into a story. It’s interesting, because what I’ve read Moby6about the book says that after Melville wrote Moby Dick, he pretty much got lost in obscure and not particularly interesting writing and poetry. And maybe, like Alzheimer’s, you see the early signs of that here, American classic or no American classic.

Not much has commenced in the first 70 pages. The action could be summed up in a short paragraph. The novel is, up to this point, more of a meditation (and a bit of a dark one) than a story. The reader is being indoctrinated into harsh lives, harsh weather, and harsh ways to make a living. This Melvillian world is filled with bleak, weathered wood and sharp, ominous instruments of death (harpoons and such) all around. It’s the story so far of the sea being the ultimate call to man and the price we pay for that calling. It’s not a depressing story, per se, but a weighty one. The bleariness is a call to man’s inherent isolation within himself. And yet that can be fortifying as well. In the bleak descriptions, you can feel the chill of the salt air. You know there’s very little color in the seaside sky but the gray, which makes those black-and-white stark illustrations all the more appropriate.

Okay, Moby Dick is starting to get more interesting. The main character, the character who narrates the book (Ishmael), has run into the singular character, Queequeg, who is a native from some supposedly cannibalistic heathen tribe of idol worshippers. But he’s apparently a damn good harpooner, so he fits right in with the whaling crews. And Melville has begun to sprinkle some wonderful insights about life and human nature throughout the chapters. And the narrative style has started to flow more now that he is done (for the moment) trying to set the scene. He just gets a little too thick and hard to read at times, even for my tastes. It was no surprise, therefore, when I found out he was a big admirer of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the book is dedicated. And Hawthorne’s writing could be as thick, sharp, tangled, and colorful as a rose bush.

But this novel has both figuratively and literally set sail and, mercifully, stuff has begun to happen. And Melville’s wonderful insights have come, at least at the moment, in rapid succession as he has introduced this strange and fascinating Queequeg character and contrasted him with Ishmael’s world. There’s a lot of “native envy” going on, but this is fine and it will be fun to see where Melville takes all this. Will Queequeg have a darker side or will Melville be content to stick with the noble savage persona? Either way, Queequeg is a most interesting duck so far.

Anyway, Ishmael has chosen the ship, the Pequod, and we all know who the captain of that ship is, although he has yet to be introduced. And that’s where it stands at the moment.

When I went to check out this book at the library a week or so ago, the librarian gave me an attaboy nod, as if I were to be commended for even checking this book out. I think Moby Dick may be one of those classics that everyone admires but few have read. Well, I intend to add myself to the list of those who have read it. And I didn’t really know what to expect. In my mind, it’s a book that is generally associated with children. But this is not Harry Potter 2.0. This isn’t a children’s book at all. It’s pretty sophisticated, at least so far. I could quote from it extensively, but that just slows things down and there are over 500 pages to go as it is. But Melville has offered many wonderful insights so far, particularly regarding religion. In this book, Melville is clearly talking about much more than just whaling, although I’m sure the whaling adventure aspect of it will take center stage soon.

A couple nifty quotes from the book:

Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;–Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more. Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. That it was only then, on the homeward voyage, after the encounter, that the final monomania seized him, seems all but certain from the fact that, at intervals during the passage, he was a raving lunatic; and, though unlimbed of a leg, yet such vital strength yet lurked in his Egyptian chest, and was moreover intensified by his delirium, that his mates were forced to lace him fast, even there, as he sailed, raving in his hammock. In a strait-jacket, he swung to the mad rockings of the gales. And, when running into more sufferable latitudes, the ship, with mild stun’sails spread, floated across the tranquil tropics, and, to all appearances, the old man’s delirium seemed left behind him with the Cape Horn swells, and he came forth from his dark den into the blessed light and air; even then, when he bore that firm, collected front, however pale, and issued his calm orders once again; and his mates thanked God the direful madness was now gone; even then, Ahab, in his hidden self, raved on. Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.


“But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?”

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market….Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“…All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations.”

I knew when I was a couple pages or so into this book that it wasn’t one I was going to be able to call early. The Hawthorne dedication was a dead-giveaway, for anyone enamored with that style can’t be judged in just a few pages. You have to Moby3hack your way through the thicket until you finally come upon Victoria Falls. And through page 454, I can hear those falls not far off.

But first off, those illustrations by Rockwell Kent are a real addition to the novel. And there are dozens of them. If anyone out there decides to read this book, be sure to get an edition that includes these illustrations. They’re actually quite helpful in many instances because Herman Melville reminds me of Victor Hugo. If you ever read Les Miserables (unabridged), you may soon come to think that the fictional story was merely tacked onto what is often times a history book. And Melville seems intent not just on telling a story of a white whale hunted by a mad captain, but in making you conversant in everything surrounding the whaling industry. And he pretty much does. And the pictures help to show you at times what I don’t think he does a very good job at in words. But some things just need to be seen. We all know what a block and tackle looks like, but do you know what a 19th century bailer looks like? And each picture is like a miniature work of art….which I think they are.

Reading Melville, I can see why he regards Nathanial Hawthorne so highly. He resembles his style, at least in Moby Dick. And anyone should be pleased if they could, just once in their life, write a paragraph as good as this one:

But, at last, when turning to the eastward, the Cape winds began howling around us, and we rose and fell upon the long, troubled seas that are there; when the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness, till, like showers of silver chips, the foam-flakes flew over her bulwarks; then all this desolate vacuity of life went away, but gave place to sights more dismal than before.

Not a five-dollar word in the bunch. Anyone who wants to write well probably ought not to try and please William F. Buckley who was known for stretching the limits of everyone’s vocabulary. And there’s a time and place for that. No need to dumb down always. But there’s also no need to put on airs and pretend at a sophistication by spending lavishly on five-dollar words. Better to use the 50 cent ones.

Reading a book like this you realize how many words came from sailing and sailors. Masthead, scuttlebutt, and a whole bunch of words I’ve forgotten at the moment.

Melville runs on rather laboriously in a chapter about why the white of the whale is so ominous. But then he does finally strike gold:

Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows–a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues–every stately or lovely emblazoning–the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge–pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

Again, that’s rather thick and (at least for me) makes reading slow. But it can be worth it.

Moby5Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

Ishmael and his fellow crew, while out trying to harpoon a whale, were dunked into the sea and barely escaped with their lives. Starbuck, who was in charge, is supposedly the most careful and prudent of the mates. This is just a good patch of writing. It’s even quite funny.

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.

“Queequeg,” said I, when they had dragged me, the last man, to the deck, and I was still shaking myself in my jacket to fling off the water; “Queequeg, my fine friend, does this sort of thing often happen?” Without much emotion, though soaked through just like me, he gave me to understand that such things did often happen.

“Mr. Stubb,” said I, turning to that worthy, who, buttoned up in his oil-jacket, was now calmly smoking his pipe in the rain; “Mr. Stubb, I think I have heard you say that of all whalemen you ever met, our chief mate, Mr. Starbuck, is by far the most careful and prudent. I suppose then, that going plump on a flying whale with your sail set in a foggy squall is the height of a whaleman’s discretion?”

“Certain. I’ve lowered for whales from a leaking ship in a gale off Cape Horn.”

“Mr. Flask,” said I, turning to little King-Post, who was standing close by; “you are experienced in these things, and I am not. Will you tell me whether it is an unalterable law in this fishery, Mr. Flask, for an oarsman to break his own back pulling himself back-foremost into death’s jaws?”

“Can’t you twist that smaller?” said Flask. “Yes, that’s the law. I should like to see a boat’s crew backing water up to a whale face foremost. Ha, ha! the whale would give them squint for squint, mind that!”

Here then, from three impartial witnesses, I had a deliberate statement of the entire case. Considering, therefore, that squalls and capsizings in the water and consequent bivouacks on the deep, were matters of common occurrence in this kind of life; considering that at the superlatively critical instant of going on to the whale I must resign my life into the hands of him who steered the boat–oftentimes a fellow who at that very moment is in his impetuousness upon the point of scuttling the craft with his own frantic stampings; considering that the particular disaster to our own particular boat was chiefly to be imputed to Starbuck’s driving on to his whale almost in the teeth of a squall, and considering that Starbuck, notwithstanding, was famous for his great heedfulness in the fishery; considering that I belonged to this uncommonly prudent Starbuck’s boat; and finally considering in what a devil’s chase I was implicated, touching the White Whale: taking all things together, I say, I thought I might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will. “Queequeg,” said I, “come along, you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee.”

It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.

I imagine a lot of people have crashed and burned while trying to read Moby Dick. Melville’s asides about whale anatomy, cetacean peculiarities, and his poetic musings about whales are killing me. The many chapters that do just that severely interrupt the story. I’m not against this style, in principle. But there are just too many of those chapter-asides and in the latter parts of the book, most of them run on for far too long and aren’t particularly interesting. When he finally gets back to the main story, it’s a real relief. Even should Melville finish with a wonderful climax, this book has already been a tough one to recommend because of all these asides. And I’m definitely losing some steam and interest. An editor, an editor, my kingdom for an editor.

But when we get to the story, it’s an interesting story. And by the time you finish the book you’ll probably be writing a check to Greenpeace. It’s just awful what they do to those whales. The word “barbarous” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Moby7And Melville (so far, over 2/3 into the book) sets an interesting tone. Moby Dick isn’t exactly Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which helped open people’s minds to the horrors of slavery) nor is it Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which exposed the horrors of the meat packing industry). This isn’t (so far) an anti-whaling book. He actually revels in the grand adventure of it most of the time. And yet Melville doesn’t flinch from describing the reality of it. He isn’t actively condemning the hunting of whales, per se. But a careful description of it can’t help but do just that. But he does overtly takes some shots, telling people to burn that oil in their lamps carefully and without waste because, well, look what it takes to get it.

I’m not through with this book yet, and endings usually matter quite a bit, but when I ask myself “What is this book about?” I’m not really sure. A quick Wiki summation says it thusly:

In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes. Through the main character’s journey, the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of gods are all examined as Ishmael speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. The narrator’s reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor’s life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides.

And I point this out only because I think it so misses the mark. If you read this book thinking it’s a commentary on religion, you’ll be disappointed. Same with class or social status, good and evil, the existence of gods, etc. But it does hit the mark to say that this is about the narrator’s reflections along with his description of a sailor’s life aboard a whaling ship. That says it exactly. There’s more coming, obviously. But even over 550 pages into this novel, I would not yet say that it is a book about the obsessive Captain Ahab. Ahab and Mody Dick have only tangentially entered the equation so far. Really. This book is indeed full of some interesting reflections, but it’s damn near a manual on whale hunting. I feel after reading this I will have a pretty good idea of what to do should I wish to sign up aboard an old wind-powered whaling vessel. That’s not to denigrate the story. I actually have found it very interesting thus far except, as I said, for the interminable asides about the minutia of whale anatomy and behavior.

My advice if you decide to pick up this book is to go ahead and skip through a few of those chapters about the whale anatomy and such. There’s one entirely about just his tail, for example. And although Melville does have a few poetic insights even about such things as whale tails, these insights are often not enough to justify running the story aground so that he can wax poetic. This may be the “great American novel” but that Wiki article says that it also received mixed reviews when first published. I can see why. And like I half suspect, more people probably claim this novel than have ever read it. It’s very good in places. Don’t get me wrong. And I’m not finished yet, so these are just my impressions up to this point. But even a spectacular ending won’t change the dreadfully boring asides that occur again and again in this book. The early ones are the best. But as the book moves on there are more of them and they become even more sufferingly detailed.

Granted, you’ve got that major theme between Ahab and the whale. And that’s a big and good one. But if this book is great, it is likely because the biggest theme of all is the coarseness of life. The magic of this book, such as it is, I think has more to do with Melville’s accurate portrayal of life in general, even though the slice-of-life that we see is of whale hunting. But man has always been a hunter. We have always had to kill things and battle the elements in order to survive. Rather than any specific poetic musings or intentional themes, I think it is this truthful and accurate portrayal of the necessities and realities of life that makes Moby Dick so interesting and relevant, and not just then but now. The themes and messages seem to flow quite naturally because of Melville’s rather straightforward and truthful portrayal of just this one very interesting human venture in life. Perhaps Ahab has vested that one white whale with all his troubles and woes. But we can do the same regarding our own lives with this tale of the whaling industry. It can Moby8represent the hunter and the hunted, the battle against forces trying to subdue us, and the inherent cruelty of life. We share all these things in our own lives. These themes and realities are played out in grander ways in the book, but good books and good authors do that. Ahab is not a character completely foreign to us, nor is Ishmael or Queequeg.

But back to the whales. If this book is an intended commentary on the beastliness of human beings then, well, bravo. Well done. You’ll never want to eat another whale again after reading this book. And you’ll not likely have as much respect or “tolerance” for keeping alive the “authentic” Native America traditions of whale hunting. You’ll be right out there in the boat full of Greenpeace loonies who don’t have the insufferable ludicrous fake “respect” for “aboriginal traditions” and instead are willing to call a spade a spade. We go through this controversy every few years here in the Northwest. I’m not really sure where it stands at the moment, whether the NW Native Americans are allowed to carry on their “traditions” or whether they’ve been tied up in court. But you have a heard heart, indeed, if you can read Moby Dick and not be rooting for the whales.

Here’s another worthy quote from Moby Dick:

The Blacksmith.

Availing himself of the mild, summer-cool weather that now reigned in these latitudes, and in preparation for the peculiarly active pursuits shortly to be anticipated, Perth, the begrimed, blistered old blacksmith, had not removed his portable forge to the hold again, after concluding his contributory work for Ahab’s leg, but still retained it on deck, fast lashed to ringbolts by the foremast; being now almost incessantly invoked by the headsmen, and harpooneers, and bowsmen to do some little job for them; altering, or repairing, or new shaping their various weapons and boat furniture. Often he would be surrounded by an eager circle, all waiting to be served; holding boat-spades, pike-heads, harpoons, and lances, and jealously watching his every sooty movement, as he toiled. Nevertheless, this old man’s was a patient hammer wielded by a patient arm. No murmur, no impatience, no petulance did come from him. Silent, slow, and solemn; bowing over still further his chronically broken back, he toiled away, as if toil were life itself, and the heavy beating of his hammer the heavy beating of his heart. And so it was.–Most miserable!

A peculiar walk in this old man, a certain slight but painful appearing yawing in his gait, had at an early period of the voyage excited the curiosity of the mariners. And to the importunity of their persisted questionings he had finally given in; and so it came to pass that every one now knew the shameful story of his wretched fate.

Belated, and not innocently, one bitter winter’s midnight, on the road running between two country towns, the blacksmith half-stupidly felt the deadly numbness stealing over him, and sought refuge in a leaning, dilapidated barn. The issue was, the loss of the extremities of both feet. Out of this revelation, part by part, at last came out the four acts of the gladness, and the one long, and as yet uncatastrophied fifth act of the grief of his life’s drama.

He was an old man, who, at the age of nearly sixty, had postponedly encountered that thing in sorrow’s technicals called ruin. He had been an artisan of famed excellence, and with plenty to do; owned a house and garden; embraced a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife, and three blithe, ruddy children; every Sunday went to a cheerful-looking church, planted in a grove. But one night, under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home, and robbed them all of everything. And darker yet to tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into his family’s heart. It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home. Now, for prudent, most wise, and economic reasons, the blacksmith’s shop was in the basement of his dwelling, but with a separate entrance to it; so that always had the young and loving healthy wife listened with no unhappy nervousness, but with vigorous pleasure, to the stout ringing of her young-armed old husband’s hammer; whose reverberations, muffled by passing through the floors and walls, came up to her, not unsweetly, in her nursery; and so, to stout Labor’s iron lullaby, the blacksmith’s infants were rocked to slumber.

Oh, woe on woe! Oh, Death, why canst thou not sometimes be timely? Hadst thou taken this old blacksmith to thyself ere his full ruin came upon him, then had the young widow had a delicious grief, and her orphans a truly venerable, legendary sire to dream of in their after years; and all of them a care-killing competency. But Death plucked down some virtuous elder brother, on whose whistling daily toil solely hung the responsibilities of some other family, and left the worse than useless old man standing, till the hideous rot of life should make him easier to harvest.

Why tell the whole? The blows of the basement hammer every day grew more and more between; and each blow every day grew fainter than the last; the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes, glitteringly gazing into the weeping faces of her children; the bellows fell; the forge choked up with cinders; the house was sold; the mother dived down into the long church-yard grass; her children twice followed her thither; and the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond in crape; his every woe unreverenced; his grey head a scorn to flaxen curls!

Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them–“Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up THY gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!”

Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall of eve, the blacksmith’s soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went a-whaling.


Moby Dick

A whale of a tale that, at over 800 pages (with illustrations), would have been improved had it been about 600. The best defense of the length may be as one person put it:

You have to remember when this book was written to fully appreciate it. When I first read it, I found there were parts that bored me as well, such as the chapters describing whales. But there were no movies or televisions in this time, and many people had not seen whales or how whaling was done, etc. It was necessary for Melville to go into lengthy descriptions so that readers of the time would fully understand what he was talking about. You find this in many of the books of this time period, although maybe not to this extent.

And surely an eloquent summary of the book’s weaknesses is how another person put it:

I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to be prolix, pretentious, and other “p” words.

Yes, I am aware of all of the symbolism in the book, and most of the symbols are quite interesting and original. There are few cliches in this matter.

Moby-Dick is even impressive in its ambiguity. The story can be interpreted in various ways, and the author’s true beliefs remain largely unknown. No characters are overtly used as mouthpieces.

However, I disliked Moby-Dick on a less aesthetic level. To put it bluntly: it was boring. Although Moby-Dick begins in one of the most wonderfully written chapters and made me almost laugh a few times in the first 30 pages, it soon became tedious to read. As soon as Melville’s ship embarks, the novel digresses into technical descriptions of whaling, filled with too many nautical terms to look up; histories of whales; and one wonders why one should give a s—. He also employs an avant-garde technique of having the characters speak as though it were theater and not prose.

I truly believe that Melville was insane. He desperately wanted to become an important writer, like his friend the far-superior novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne; so he wrote something so cryptic and unpleasant in order to rise to fame. Judging from the schizophrenic nature of the narrative, he had some problems.

I am not denying that Moby-Dick is a masterpiece as far as originality and aesthetic merits; I am merely saying that it is impossible to connect to the novel. If he had only omitted the needless expository prose about whaling, we would have been left with a novel just as deep but not as dreadful to read.

But the fair review will note the many brilliant passages and intriguing central story. But still, it had its flaws. One criticism of that story would be that Queequeg, who starts as a central character with his relationship with Ishmael, becomes but a bit actor. That’s a shame, for in exploring the friendship and odd differences between Queequeg and Ishmael, it mirrors the very circumstance of Ishmael being thrust into the exotic and dangerous craft of whaling. I was expecting this contrast between the mundane and the exotic to be enriched and explored in more depth through these two. God knows this book is already top-heavy with symbolism, much of it trite. This would have been a great device. But that’s not the direction he went and Queequeg seems out of place every time he is mentioned. You’re thinking, “Where was he and what has he been up do?”

Another shortcoming is just the sheer, blatant, sledgehammer-you-over-the-head attempts at deep symbolism. I thought it was way overdone. Drop it back by 50% and it would have been fine. But Melville was just trying way too hard to be crafty.

Where this book excels is when it takes you on an adventure and makes you a part of it. When the plot moves it’s the most interesting. Melville crafts a world and a marvelously simple and straightforward story and makes it interesting. Had the characters been set in a factory it wouldn’t have worked. The whaling and seagoing both are wonderful and exotic backdrops and, well, sturdy and strong keels for this story. He lays a lot of things on them, and at times threatens to swamp the ship, but it survives on the strength of Melville’s intriguing, detailed, and exotic subject matter. And, surprising to me, Ahab and his pursuit of the whale are secondary. They actually don’t figure prominently into the story unto perhaps 3/4 of the way through. I thought the characters of Starbuck and Queegueg, and just the sundry characters on board the ship, were more interesting (in separate sometimes, but definitely in total) than Ahab. And it’s not that Ahab was boring, it’s just that he tended to ramble. What other characters said and thought about Ahab was far more interesting than the actual words coming out of Ahab’s mouth much of the time.

Oddly, despite the way I thought many of Melville’s asides about the technicalities of whaling were boring, it was his quite interesting description and presentation of very normal (for whalers) events that had me turning pages (during those times when it was a page-turner). Probably many who read something like this are aren’t accustomed to struggling through such thick language will see it as excessively flowery. And, indeed, at times it is. At times I 0 Rfound myself reading a paragraph and my mind wandering because the phrasing was just so awkward, the sentences too long, and/or the concept he was trying to describe just a bit too subtle to be of much interest. Granted, great literature is often about describing the mundane and thereby making them interesting and intriguing, much like a stand-up comic can make us laugh by describing everyday things but showing them to us in a new way. But occasionally I think Melville just tries a bit too hard to wring out the meaning from some thing. But sometimes you just have to take chances, and he succeeds enough to more than make up for the misses. Indeed, you read him like you would Hawthorne (who he was apparently trying to emulate). You find truffles among and under the leaves. The patience is rewarded by descriptions of thing that are original and artful.

Again, one of the greatest pleasures of this book were the illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I’ll scan a few choice ones if I get a chance. Overall, Moby Dick is one of those classics of literature that is a bit like eating your vegetables. It’s high art. Some of the writing in this is among the best I’ve ever read. The book is a treasure to the world. And yet it’s not an easy book to read. Frankly, if I were recommending books to read, I might say to start with other classics first and work my way here. If you haven’t read Tom Sawyer, then start with that. Or Animal Farm. Of Human Bondage. The Call of the Wild. To Kill a Mockingbird. Childhood’s End. Narnia (great series). Or several dozen other books. I might try to suffer my way through some Dickens, but that’s exactly what I think it would be. Suffering. And I wholeheartedly recommend Les Miserable, but suggest the abridged version unless you’re a glutton for punishment. Some classics are like that. And some classics (like the writing of James Joyce) I just do not get and probably never will. I think Moby Dick falls slightly in that category of “good, but maybe I’ll read that tomorrow. And tomorrow never quite comes. Don Quixote is falling into that category for me. I’ve read about 40 pages into it, and it just doesn’t interest me, although I hear all the time about how great it is. Maybe it is, but when will that greatness start? There are so many other books to read. Such as these.

I think the other thing that strikes me about Moby Dick is that it is slightly anticlimactic. By the time you make your way through 800 pages, I think you’re expecting more than you get, something more dramatic. Yeah, maybe when summarized the things that happen sound pretty cool. But the writing has grown a bit tired by then. It includes a great line stolen from the Wrath of Kahn, “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” But other than that, a lot of the writing at the end I thought was rather unremarkable, especially considering that this was the grand finale. Still, this is a good book, just not an easy one. Skillful editing would have improved it.

Additional thoughts…

Unlike some other good books I’ve read, I find it harder to pin down meaning in regards to Moby Dick. And I actually don’t like to try to read meaning into something as if I were engaging in phrenology or palm reading. I want to stick to what I think actually exists. And yet there are aspects of Moby Dick. that seem to beg doing a little palm reading and possibly lathering on one’s subjective fantasies where they don’t belong. Again, I see this book as more than the obsessive captain after the white whale, and I don’t mean just that each of these characters is a symbol for something else, although they are to some extent. But there is much spelunking to do beyond just these symbols. Consider the length of the book itself. With illustrations, it’s over 824 pages. I think a rough analogy can be drawn with Victor Hugo’s much larger Les Miserables. I agree that Moby Dick. is more of a meditation, but like Les Miserables it is also a quest onto itself. It takes at least a dose of physical and mental stamina to stay with it. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, Melville has written a book that is at least slightly analogous to a long whale journey itself.

The odd thing is (or maybe it’s not so odd), just as I never for a moment thought to go off on a tangent regarding any supposed homoeroticism in this book, neither was I inclined to dig deeply into the various clear and numerous symbolism in this book. Part of the reason, I think, is that so much of that symbolism was pretty plain and obvious, even to the point where you feel he’s hammering you over the head with it a bit. So is there hidden meaning to be found in having a casket strapped to the back of the Pequod in place of the lost life preserver? No, I don’t think so. It’s pretty much telegraphing it. I think therefore that much of the symbolism we see isn’t about trying to plant hidden or subtle meaning. It was just Melville’s device to try to add an ominous and foreboding weight to the novel. Had Ahab decided at the last minute to end his pursuit of the white whale, then all that symbolism would have been wonderful misdirection. But as it was, I didn’t find it all that interesting — not the coffin nor the many other “death and disaster are coming” foreshadowing symbols. They added a certain tone to the book, and that’s fine. But what I’m saying is that for these reasons and more, I don’t find the great meaning and themes of the book to be contained within them. My white whale lies elsewhere.

Although there is obviously a plot-driven aspect to Moby Dick (and hardly a minor one), again, I’d say that most of this novel’s charm is in the description of things and stories that are sidelines to that main man-vs-whale story. And maybe “story” isn’t quite the right word. You get a huge dollop of real life in this book. It’s full of documentary-style information (only some of it I would say is in boring asides), biology, geography, and most of all, the human animal. It’s one thing for some fancy-schmancy novel to dress up all the nice folk in Sunday’s finest and show this gentry interacting and squabbling in some country estate over the price of tea in India. It’s quite another to show (and not in an over-glorified or larger-than-life way) the rather matter-of-fact fact of man as the hunter, of man as the survivor, as man as yet another animal on this earth struggling to get by. And we have one more trait that we can presume most animals do not have. Man also struggles for meaning. And the added weight of our ability to see our primal actions (actions shared by other animals, including sharks) in another context is both uplifting and cause for revulsion. It’s absolutely wonderful how Melville steers a clear and neutral course regarding the actual act of whaling. He shows both the sheer excitement of it and the sheer horror of it, giving preference to neither, as if he were trying to present the facts as fairly as possible, not wanting to bias us, the jury, in either direction. And we can see man the hunter and man the survivor as little different from the sharks who gather and madly slash at and bite the whale carcasses that are tied to the side of the ship. And had man had no higher functions of observation and consciousness, the story would end there. Actually, there would be no story. But man’s ability to observe himself in action, and to write it down, presents a most curious overall story in the history of nature. We are savages and yet have the ability to recognize this. That step alone (presented with a neutral eye by Melville) is already a step above. And yet, potentially seeing such savagery openly and consciously and continuing to be savage also presents man with the ability to be far more savage than any animal that has ever existed. And Melville gives us a complete and direct glimpse into this. The white whale (and all the whales in the novel) become objects of that savagery.

We see the sharks and man in bloodlust and have to ask ourselves “What is the difference?” Maybe none. But we bring another dimension to the harsh facts of nature. We bring meaning and purpose, whether it’s there or not. We bring symbolism and retribution, blame and intention. We see things that may or may not actually be there in the world (just like Ahab reads such malevolence into the motives of the white whale). Are the motivations we impute to other objects (including the entirety of nature herself) real or are they real merely because we give these stories life and act as if they were real? And is there any real difference between the two? In the end, the men of the Pequod seem to pay for their lust and savagery…all of them but one. Ishmael. (We need him to survive in order to tell his story.) But this is by no means a Greenpeace novel. Hell no. Moby Dick isn’t an overt political or social commentary, at least by modern standards. And given the realities of writing and creativity, it’s even possible (likely, really) that an author can put more into something than he or she is consciously aware of. But clearly to say that this is a man-vs-whale novel is to miss the point. This is a novel that is unblinkingly revealing of the realities of nature and of man. These are things in this novel that are cause for both great wonder, enjoyment, and awe, and for horror, revulsion, and sheer pessimism. And that’s friggin’ life in a nutshell. In this novel we see man the technologist as he fashions his many fascinating and clever instruments that allow him to make use of the sea. And these parts of the novel, the aqua-geek in me loved. Tools. You can many times give a Tim Allen-like “ooooggg, oooggg, oggggg,” caveman grunt because of how cool so much of this stuff is.

And it is indeed our tools that give us mastery over even the largest animals on earth. We have won, there’s no doubt about that. In Moby Dick, you can’t help but feel a bit of melancholy about this. Again, this isn’t a sanctioned Greenpeace novel, but man is often presented as a crude and blunt instrument of death. And for what do we kill these mighty beasts and cause them to suffer so? Right, to fill our lamps at night with oil. But every other animal eats every other animal as well. This is not forgotten in this novel. This novel is not, I think, an overt condemnation of anything. I think it’s instead a rather objective, non-preachy look at life. If Moby Dick could not be written today, it is not likely because such skilled writers do not exist. It’s likely because today’s axe-grinding, posing, and politicizing dweebs often squeeze all the life and enjoyment out of a subject. They preach too much. It’s almost become impossible in this day and age to simply observe objectively. In many places, including some newspapers, it’s considered negligence of one’s duty not to affirmatively push for a supposedly righteous cause. Just the facts, maam? Forgettaboutit. And the great truth of this, at least in my opinion, is that the greatest meaning, messages, and truth flow out of objectivity rather than overt axe-grinding. We taint reality when we try to change it to suit our fancy. But not Moby Dick. You get both the wonder of the hunt and life at sea, and the horror of it. You get man in all his glory and all his worst traits. The glory in this case is not the hero who saves the maiden trapped in the castle, but the species who has conquered nature and made all this clever technology. Again, you might not consider Moby Dick a technological thriller, but I think the exposition of human whaling and seafaring technology is one of it’s prime strengths. This may be more of a guy thing, but so be it. And perhaps the glory is also implicit in a species who has to endure the added pains of that dimension unique to man; his awareness, consciousness, and therefore his noble pains in dealing with those things even while having the harsh realities of nature thrust upon him like any other animal.

There are indeed many other themes as well, all of them I like. None of them do I perceive as trite. But I do think, whether intentionally or unintentionally (and hopefully I’m not engaging in phrenology), much of the joys of this novel are not specifically contained in what many people might say is a summary of this book: obsessed man-vs-dangerous whale. • (11830 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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8 Responses to Reading Moby Dick

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Overall, if you haven’t read Moby Dick, you can sort of use this as a substitute. If you wish to read Moby Dick, you’ll know what you’re in for.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    We had Moby Dick (or to be precise, an abridged version that didn’t include his chapter detailing Ahab’s experience with the whale or the chapters on the various types of whales, and probably some others as well) in 11th grade (we also read Billy Budd, also by Melville, also involving the sea, and a lot shorter). I recall that in my paper on it for the class, I relied on the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” (which I think one of your excerpts is from) to argue, in essence, that Melville couldn’t make up his mind whether the whale symbolized good or evil, so it had no such meaning at all. (The teacher gave me a good grade, figuring that I argued my case well. For that matter, I got the Outstanding Student Award in English that year, which turned out to be the book Catch-22.)

    Of course, it has occurred to me, especially over the past year, that Chris Matthews (in particular, but also others at MSNBC) seems very Ahab-like in his pursuit of the great white racism. I have a couple of very short parodies in the upcoming FOSFAX, one giving Ahab as his model and one in which he says he never uses marijuana because his mentor and guru once advised him, “Hemp only can kill thee” — which I believe is the Parsee’s phrasing to Ahab in making his prophecy.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      …to argue, in essence, that Melville couldn’t make up his mind whether the whale symbolized good or evil, so it had no such meaning at all.

      That’s pretty good reading for the 11th grade. That reminds me of one of the articles that either Deana or Glenn wrote about how dumbed-down the education system has become. But then, we were reading Shakespeare in a 10th or 11th grade class (an elective class, for sure). Not that we would have understood much of it without our truly marvelous guide in the guise of Don Bidwell as teacher. Shakespeare requires quite a bit of translation for the modern English reader. I remember him chuckling out loud a time or two at the obscure dirty parts. Someone would always ask him about that and he’d just say, “Let’s move on.”

      I’d love to read your essay if it still exists. I don’t know if I’ve thought much about the question of the moral status of the whale. Certainly Ahab anthropomorphizes the whale. And yet, that whale does seem to hold a grudge. And given the slaughter of its fellow creatures, you don’t have to be an animal rights Nazi to have sympathy for the whale, at least in terms of defending itself and its kind.

      Melville certainly was into symbolism. One could see the whale as representative of primal nature, red in tooth and claw (or tail). Man may even envy that power and the act of killing it is to raise himself above it. Is this not true in large part regarding many of the tribal rituals surrounding the hunting of animals? Mankind tends to want to subdue that which is powerful and that perhaps reminds him of his own lack of majesty. (In modern parlance, they don’t harpoon; they just use the word, “equality.”)

      Don’t we have an Ahab in the White House? This is a man who has come to hate what America stands for. We are the whale he wishes to slaughter because the idea of America is of an inherent strength and nobility, both of which, in contrast, implicitly show him to be the small, petty, angry, and ignoble man that he is.

      And, yes, Matthews is also Ahab-like as you astutely pointed out.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        As I recall, Starbuck advises Captain Ahab to back off from his pursuit near the end, pointing out that the whale isn’t going after the Pequod; “It’s thou, thou, that is madly seeking him.”

        And as I’ve mentioned, we had a Shakespeare play in 10th grade, and I think I’d already had A Midsummer Night’s Dream previously. For that matter, in 10th grade we also had 1984, Brave New World, and The Importance of Being Earnest, and no doubt I’ve forgotten other items.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yes, if memory serves, I think that was Starbuck’s take.

          You guys had a spiffy curriculum in high school. I had some good teachers, but much of the curriculum was mediocre, at best. In retrospect, one can perhaps see that it was a case of civil service employees going through the motions. Still, there were those people such as Don Bidwell (Shakespeare), Betty Anderson (Deutsch), and a few rare others who were dedicated, energetic, and appreciated excellence. They were not just going through the motions to pick up a paycheck.

  3. TetVet TetVet says:

    Holy smokes!

    About six months ago something moved me to dig out my copy of Moby Dick and finally read it. It had been assigned in one of my English classes in college, but actually reading it would have interfered seriously with other important matters, like social life. So I listened to the class lectures and bluffed my way (successfully) through the test.

    Well, I got to about page 300 and had seen enough nautical terms to make me seasick, so I set the book aside and resolved to resume the slog again sometime before Obama leaves office. Everything you said about the drudgery of all that nautical description reinforces exactly my reaction.

    One of my friends is a former English prof, so I talked to him about it, making essentially the same complaint you did. Although he had taught the novel, he admitted that he had himself “skimmed over” some of the long–and yes, boring–diversions about rigging and whale anatomy. He told me that if the reading of it hadn’t become its own reward by about page 400, then at this stage in life it probably wasn’t worth burning the oil to finish it. From an English prof!

    So now it’s been about six months since I set the book aside, and here I see your review, which stoked up my inchoate guilt about having never read the book. I’ve invested just enough time and effort already that your review has now inspired (shamed?) me into giving it another hundred pages or so. I don’t know whether to thank you for that or not! All the same, I do appreciate your review. Thanks!

    At least I can light my way through it without burning whale oil. That’s a plus, I guess.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      TetVet, I’m glad you concur about the ponderousness of some of Melville’s asides. My critique regarding this certainly doesn’t come from a short-attention-span, low-information sort of person, as some might wonder. Good luck to you as you plow through it. But if I had it to do all over again, I would just skip the asides.

      But I do defend Melville’s artistic right to be voluminous or else where would this site (or this review of mine) be? 😀

      And having read almost every single word of the unabridged version of “Les Miserables,” I know that one would miss some good stuff if one skipped. For instance, there’s a fascinating description of Napoleon and Wellington at Waterloo plopped smack-dab in the middle of the story, which is itself a sort of meditation on Christ, in the large sense.

      But it’s a very interesting and unexpected history of that battle. And at the end of it, Hugo connects it right back to the overall story by having Thénardier picking through the corpses of fallen soldiers for trinkets and such. But also in “Les Miserables” there is a large aside about hospitals or mental institutions (I forget which one….I eventually broke down and did some skipping). These asides just become too much even for the patient reader. And at around 1500 pages, one’s patience is stretch in the best of circumstances.

      Still, that’s a book that I highly recommend. I admit to being impressed by Melville’s powers of description and his insights into humanity. But the book that stays with me in terms of meaning is “Les Miserables.” I think I received much from reading this novel and relatively little from “Moby Dick.” That’s a highly subjective opinion, but it’s where I stand. But certainly “Moby Dick” deserves the label of “classic,” but with just a few reservations.

  4. Kung Fu Zu says:

    I read this in eight grade which means in 1966-67. I just looked through my library and still have the copy I read. It cost US$0.75 for the “complete and unabridged” paperback version in those days.

    My English teacher, Mr. Newman, was a peculiar, but very intelligent gentleman (and he really was an old style quiet gentleman) who gave eighth graders a lot of credit. Perhaps more than we deserved. Certainly, more than I deserved.

    At the beginning of the spring semester, he passed out a reading list to all students which must have had over 100 books on it. Each book was given a numeric value. Some books had lower numbers and some had higher numbers depending on their difficulty to read and comprehend. He then gave each student an individual numeric requirement which the student had to attain at the end of semester. It was amazing as each student’s number was different. To achieve that number a student had to read as many books from the list as was required to reach that numeric requirement. And at the end of semester, each student would chose the book he would be tested on for the final.

    Being the thirteen year old genius I was, and not wanting to read too many books, I decided to read “Moby Dick” as it had the highest numeric value of any book on the list. A few other books also had the same value, but for some reason I thought it a good idea to land on the whale.

    What a mistake.

    I kept putting off reading the book until only two or three days before the final. Then it was a crash course in Ismael, Ahab and the Whale; reading all night and trying to figure out what the bloody book was about. By the day of the final, I was a wreck, but stoically, (because I had no other choice) went in to take the exam.

    In the end, I achieved my points, passed the exam with a B, and can’t remember a thing about “Moby Dick”.

    As an aside, the book was loosely based on an incident in the South Pacific, off of S. America, I believe, where a sperm whale really did sink a ship.

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