I’ve ended up on a bit of an American classics kick. My next selection from my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list came in the form of an excessively dog-eared Penguin Classic edition of Moby Dick, once belonging to my husband. (I can’t believe I married a heathen that defaces books in such a manner, forgive me.)
Moby Dick was published in 1851 and – like all of our favourite classics – it was a complete commercial failure, out of print by the time Melville died 40 years later. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it gained a reputation as The Greatest American Novel Of All Time. The story is based on Melville’s experience as a whaler in the 1840s, and appears to draw from the story of an actual boat that tragically sank (the Essex, in 1820), and an unrelated albino whale called Mocha Dick (which was killed in the late 1830s). So, the story practically wrote itself, by the sounds…
It kicks off with the narrator, Ishmael, meeting his
exotic lover friend Queequeg in Nantucket, and they seek to go a-whaling together. (There’s a lot of veiled homoeroticism, but I think you’re supposed to ignore that.) They end up aboard the Pequod, with a mysterious one-legged Captain Ahab that you don’t see much for the first couple hundred pages. Once he appears, however, he has them all just sail around the world, bumping into other ships and asking them if they’ve seen Moby Dick, the infamous white whale that bit off his leg.
The book is over 600 pages long, and 235 pages go by before anyone actually sees a whale. So how does he fill in the time? Well, Melville takes it upon himself to teach us all about whales. The etymology of the word “whale”. The history of whales (starting with Genesis). An amateur taxonomy of whales (unfortunately for Melville, it doesn’t really hold up with the hundred and fifty years of scientific findings that followed). See, being that it was published in the middle of the 19th century, a reader couldn’t simply Google the terms with which they weren’t familiar, so Melville took it upon himself to write entire Wikipedia entries into the book itself.
He maybe takes it a bridge too far at times. I mean, he does a whole chapter on Things That Are Both Big and White. It doesn’t move the story along at all, it’s like he’s just sharing some fun facts.
When we get around to some actual narrative, Captain Ahab goes more and more nuts, pistol-whipping his employees and insisting that he can kill the unkillable white whale with a glorified sharp stick fashioned for him by a carpenter on board. To be honest, I almost preferred Melville’s tangential rambling chapters on whales to the actual narration of the story; action scenes bore me in movies, they do even less for me written down, and Melville writes so beautifully (when he feels like it) that I quite enjoyed his seemingly endless descriptions of all things big, white and whale-like.
Still, as Captain Ahab got increasingly pissed off, so did I. I got to the point where I had a couple hundred pages to go, and I started to wonder how much more there really was to say about whales. We’d already covered their shape, their skin, their spout, whether or not they can smell. We’d discussed whales in history, whales in religion, whales in art, whales in folklore. At that point, what stone possibly remains un-turned? What’s more (less than a hundred pages to go now), are they ever going to find this fucking Moby Dick creature? Maybe Melville was being super-meta, and his reader’s terminal wait for a resolution was meant to echo the experience of the whalers on board the Pequod waiting for Moby Dick to emerge. That’s clever, and all, but come onnnnnnnn.
Just as I decide I’m ready to throw the book across the room, there’s an absolute ripper of a storm, and the crew is ready to mutiny but Ahab gives them the old what-for and insists they press on (the guy is a study in the sunk-loss fallacy). Finally, finally, on page five hundred and ninety-fucking-five (only a couple dozen pages from the end), we actually lay eyes on Moby Dick!
Hold the champagne, though, because the boat promptly sinks and everyone dies. WTF, Melville?!
The book was originally published without an epilogue, which completely changes the story. The epilogue, as it stands in all editions today, reveals that not quite everybody dies; Ishmael floated away on a coffin-turned-life-raft and got picked up by another ship. So, without that bit, the whole thing seems to have been narrated by a perished sailor. The readers back in the day got all mad at Melville for “breaking” the rules of fiction and narration. Wouldn’t they all absolutely shit if they could see the mess we’ve made of it all today?
Initially, I really liked Melville’s style of writing, his rhythm, but I quickly learned that you can’t get too comfortable. He experimented with style throughout, sometimes sounding like Shakespeare, sometimes sounding like a biology textbook, sometimes just making shit up on the fly. He did a lot of whacky things with narration and perspective. He writes for pages about an oil painting. He uses words like “abstreperously”. He shares some amazing pearls of wisdom, like “ignorance is the parent of fear”, and “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian”. But the best moment, no question, was his actual unironic use of the world “whelmed”, which excited me (a dyed-in-the-wool child of the ’90s) no end.
I liked that there was no one over-arching ThemeTM constantly smacking you over head (a la The Scarlet Letter – Melville was miles ahead of his buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne, in my opinion). Reading Moby Dick is more like panning for gold, sifting out slivers of wisdom and brilliance and insight. There are some chunks of “search for truth”, and “perception is deception”, but on the whole there’s a lot going on and you can take from it what you will.
One minor 21st century critique (I can’t help myself, I’m sorry): there were precisely two female characters. Both of them appeared in the first 120 pages, and after that, nada. Only one of them had any actual dialogue. Once the ship sailed, it sailed on any hope of gender balance. I had unconsciously half-expected the white whale itself to be female (thinking that’d be a nice little piece of gender commentary maybe, a ship full of men chasing after a mythical female beast), but we were denied that also. So, don’t bother with Moby Dick if that bothers you.
Sexist narratives and tangential writing aside, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’d expected Moby Dick to be heavy and impenetrable and sure, it’s wordy, but it’s engaging and funny and brilliant. I enjoyed it. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I enjoyed it, other than it was just fun. I stop short of putting Moby Dick on my recommended reading list, because I’m not sure you can enjoy it without patience and a sense of humour. If you’ve got those, and you want to learn a fucktonne about whales, dive on in because Moby Dick is perfect for you.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Moby Dick:
- “I enjoyed it, but it has hundreds of pages describing the whaling experience.” – John McDaniel
- “It may be a classic, but it’s a boring classic.” – Cindy M. Downs
- “The book is fantastic, but the page numbering is not correct.” – Brodi
- “I was told this was about fishing. It’s not. Because a whale is a mammal.” – Joe Octane
- “I SURE HOPE YOU ENJOY LEARNING ABOUT WHALES!!!! Listen I read this book hoping to get a pretty good story hoping to see some of the solidarity in man by reading about his voyages in water hoping to relate to some of the struggles from being solely focused on obtaining a certain goal etc. But honestly good Lord! I swear 85% of this book is various lessons on whaling the origin of whales, whale distinction, whale body parts, whale sperm, different color whales. Oh my goodness the book starts off quick with the appearance of Queepeg you think ok we might have something here but NO! this book drags on and on and on. Gets off topic ALL of the time. The majority of this book is about how Ismael feels and about whale parts. And when Moby Dick does show up AT THE END OF THE BOOK Captain Ahab vs Moby Dick was as big a mis-match since the Super Bowl between Denver and Seattle. IT was anticlimactic some people might get this book but please don’t put me down as one. SAVE YOURSELF THE TIME AND ENERGY READ THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA A MUCH BETTER BOOK” – Pen Name