* Contains spoilers
You either love it or hate it
Ah, Moby-Dick. It seems you either love or despise Herman Melville’s famous book about the white whale. Whichever way you lean, you do so passionately. Some common complaints by book reviewers (via Goodreads) that might scare away potential readers include:
I snicker because all of these criticisms are valid. However, while I can’t tell you whether it is a Great American Novel; what I can tell you is that Moby-Dick is truly great (more on this below).
What in the world is Melville doing?
Moby-Dick is an adventure story within a painfully detailed text about whales and the whaling. You can’t help scratching your head when the prologue is entitled “Etymology” and lists historical whale references. You also can’t help feeling a little cheated when you’re enjoying Ishmael’s tale of meeting Queequeg, the harpooner, and joining the Pequod’s crew, and then you’re suddenly launched into chapters and chapters about cetology and the like. It’s a tough, frustrating and at times mind-numbingly boring read requiring patience, patience and more patience.
At first, I gnashed my teeth reading the extraneous chapters about whales. Then I started to love them as the chapters described the mystery and beauty of whales, how whaling ships operate and the process of retrieving whale oil (blubber squeezing aside). But towards the end, I began to dread these chapters again and thankfully Melville returned to the story about the hunt for Moby Dick. Please note that the name of the whale has no hyphen, as I was shocked to discover about half-way through the book.
I read somewhere (I can’t find the source at the moment) that having served on a whaling ship twice, it was important to Melville to write an accurate account of whaling as a matter of recording history. I think this little tidbit helped me get through the extraneous chapters because I always had Melville’s goal in mind. I also took a crash course in romanticism and New England transcendentalism (via Wikipedia) to get a sense of what might be influencing Melville’s unconventional approach. Moby-Dick was written during the American romanticism period and Melville does appear to write in the spirit of that time, including the belief that an artist should create without rules or restrictions, attempt to harness the power of the imagination, express the intensity of feelings, and view nature as a source of knowledge and/or spirituality. If Melville had put a disclaimer of some kind with this information, he may have been cut some slack as opposed to only selling 30 copies during his lifetime.
Even though Captain Ahab and Moby Dick get all the glory, the book does have an interesting cast of characters. That is, when Melville decides to place them on the Pequod stage. It seems to me we only hear from the main characters when he needs them to bring a particular idea to our attention or move things along in the story. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there isn’t a lot of conversation taking place unless it’s Stubb navel-gazing or Ahab and Starbuck arguing. Even our humourous narrator, Ishmael, can only entertain us for so long. His descriptions of whaling as a metaphor for life are eloquent and beautiful, but you start to slip into a trance after awhile. For this reason, I again understand why readers find the book boring.
But without doubt, Ahab is the icon. He knows what to say and do to inspire his men and convince them to follow him into battle. His rants make the best quotes. I find these qualities admirable in Ahab as a leader, but I didn’t love his character. I found Starbuck more interesting even though I know he is widely criticized by readers for being too passive. To me, Starbuck was interesting because he deeply believed Ahab’s obsession was morally wrong and a threat to their lives, but at the same time he was paralyzed by duty and loyalty. He repeatedly appealed to Ahab for reason and became so desperate he even considered killing the captain. An inner struggle that came close to betraying the religion and humanity he whole-heartedly champions during the voyage.
Now with 50% more themes
Hoo boy, take your pick of central themes in Moby-Dick: free will vs. fate, religion, brotherhood, race, sexuality. One theme that I felt was important in the story was man vs. nature as embodied by Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, an animal or “dumb brute” as Starbuck yells at him. As Ishmael meditates on frequently, and we have seen played out in countless other stories, we are fools to believe we are a match against forces of nature we can neither understand nor control.
Melville presents so many interesting points of view without settling on one particular opinion, you could spend hours interpreting what Moby-Dick about. Ultimately, I believe the book is about everything. All of the above. It’s about life and being human, and how our lives are one big mish mash of thoughts, opinions, dreams, beliefs and questions, with no chance of ever getting the answers and understanding what it all really means.
Why you should read this book
Even if you read it just to read it, or freak people out when you say you’re reading Moby-Dick (because they will), I recommend giving it a chance. I think the book is amazing because it is unique in style and structure, educational and insightful, poetic and entertaining, beguiling and frustrating. Read it with some friends, as most of my motivation came from sharing the experience with a wonderful group of bloggers who bitched with me about Melville’s tangents and often pointed out things I missed like pages on whale genitalia and symbolic soaring eagles.
Moby-Dick is a legend for many good reasons. No doubt it will drive you crazy, but it is a once in a lifetime story that you will never forget.
Rating = Read it!