Herman Melville‘s classic Moby-Dick (1851) is a great book and unlike any other novel I’ve read, but I’ve been at it for so long that I’m very happy to see the back of it!
I first cracked it open in May 2015 on a ferry back to Helsinki from Tallinn, Estonia, where I’d bought it in a nice little bookshop. It all started so well: how lovely to read about “getting to sea” on the gentle glimmering waves of the Baltic Sea! Fine, Melville’s a bit verbose here and there, but Ishmael‘s witty remarks and explorations on shore, such as sharing a bed with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg at an inn, make up for it. Ishmael meets the broody Ahab, the captain of the Pequod and a man on a mission to kill the whale that maimed his leg—all good. It’s only when the long whale hunting journey begins in earnest that my attention started to waver.
Moby-Dick is about whales, and one whale in particular. The premise is very straightforward: Ahab wants to find the monstrous white whale called Moby-Dick, dissimilar to any other whale cruising the bottomless waters of the worlds, and kill it. This jolly pair have met before, and thanks to that encounter Ahab now clunks around with a wooden leg. Ishmael is the narrator of the story, and hovers somewhere between an omniscient narrator and an active participant in the story as a sailor on the Pequod.
Most of Moby-Dick‘s 600+ pages have, however, less to do with Moby-Dick the whale, or Ahab, and more with whales in general and the practices of whaling in the mid-1800s. I would even go as far as to question whether it should be classified primarily as a novel. Yet it’s not entirely non-fiction either. Perhaps the wisest approach would be to say that it’s about the whale as a phenomenon, including its anatomy (entire chapters are devoted to mapping the whale’s body from its mouth to, quite literally, the tip of its tail fin), how it’s been depicted in art (badly, as the artists modelled their work on stranded and therefore dead specimens), and what the whaling policies are like in various countries. It’s worth noting that his meticulous descriptions of the whale, which he unwittingly keeps labelling as a fish, would have been in large part necessary because his average reader would never have seen a whale, or even paintings of it. This is a world that is still largely foreign, unexplored, and frightening.
All of the above is actually intriguing, believe it or not, and in addition to Melville’s genuinely wonderful language, the occasionally wearied reader is grateful for his short chapters that pace the reading very nicely. And of course, this reader also enjoyed his depiction of the sea and sea life, the wild whale hunts, and the colourful characters on board and on the ships on the Pequod’s route:
The next day was exceedingly still and sultry, and with nothing special to engage them, the Pequod’s crew could hardly resist the spell of sleep induced by such a vacant sea. […]
It was my turn to stand at the foremast-head; and with my shoulders leaning against the slackened royal shrouds, to and fro I idly swayed in what seemed an enchanted air. No resolution could withstand it; in that dreamy mood losing all consciousness, at last my soul went out of my body; though my body still continued to sway as a pendulum will, long after the power which first moved it is withdrawn.
Ere forgetfulness altogether came over me, I had noticed that the seamen at the main and mizen mast-heads were already drowsy. So that at last all three of us lifelessly swung from the spars, and for every swing that we made there was a nod from below from the slumbering helmsman. The waves, too, nodded their indolent crests; and across the wide trance of the sea, east nodded to west.
The book is brimming with humor and quotable lines, some less PC in our time than others:
But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in the summer.
I would have loved to witness that experiment!
Though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.
Taking a practical approach to having to share a bed with Queequeg:
Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.
Melville also confidently analyses the philosophical tendencies of various whale species:
Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale’s there? It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles in the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death. But mark the other head’s expression. See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel’s side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw. Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.
Whether the whales in question would have agreed we will never know, as they lay chopped to bits on the ship’s deck.
For the sensitive modern reader, Moby-Dick‘s relationship with nature is, I would dare to say, one of the leading themes and more remarkable than it would have been when it was first published. During many of the gory whaling scenes I found myself pitying the poor creatures that were, to all intents and purposes, slaughtered in cold blood and without much of a chance of defending themselves. Ishmael makes a case for the killing by explaining how vitally important whale oil is in providing light for the world (and bones for ladies’ corsets), but it’s not quite convincing enough in my eyes. As a very interesting exception, in one scene the sailor Starbuck asks another sailor not to inflict unnecessary pain on a whale. I must admit, however, that Melville does a fantastic job in casting Moby-Dick the whale as the ultimate baddie: a creature so horrible it must be destroyed. I won’t spoil anything, but do I hang my head in shame of the excitement I read the final pages with and cheering for the Pequod’s crew!
I must also mention a funny little incident that took place whilst I was rushing to finish the book. I succumbed to what many readers, I’m sure, are familiar with: a moment of “I will just rest my eyes for a minute before carrying on…” I entered a state of slumber that was neither proper sleep nor proper awekeness, but distinctly felt that I was on a rocking whaling boat, violent waves were crashing against us, and there were many men on the boat with me. A testament to Melville’s scene setting skills.
Despite the length, wordiness, et cetera, what carries through from Moby-Dick is a tremendous sense of energy, and it’s not just about the ships battling huge waves to kill big beasts. Here is a storyteller who is truly excited about his subject matter, and it’s this excitement that in effect holds the narrative up and forces the reader onward. Thanks to this energy getting back to Moby-Dick after Joseph Conrad‘s Nostromo was in the end very easy and even a relief.
I can’t help but notice the great number of very masculine adventure stories I’ve read of late! And to top it all I have just purchased The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace…
‘Why Read Moby-Dick?’ in the New York Times
Number 17 on The Guardian’s 100 best novels list
Herman Melville (1819-1891) was an American novelist, short story writer, and poet of the American Renaissance period best known for Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, and his whaling novel Moby-Dick (1851). His work was almost forgotten during his last thirty years. His writing draws on his experience at sea as a common sailor, exploration of literature and philosophy, and engagement in the contradictions of American society in a period of rapid change.
Featured image from here