Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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Cannonball Read V: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

By Sophia | Book Reviews | June 27, 2013 | Comments ()


My college German teacher, on one of his random tangents, once told us that we shouldn't read Moby Dick (1851) until we were in our thirties. I forget his exact reasoning, but Moby Dick is definitely a book that requires patience. Although there is tragedy, excitement, and death at every turn, there is much more quiet contemplation of the world, whales, and the sea.

I wasn't even planning on reading Moby Dick. I picked up the book in desperation one night when I couldn't sleep, thinking it would put me to sleep. I've read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, which I loved, so I knew some of the background., but I was still surprised to find it actually readable, relatable, and sometimes even funny.

On the first page, Ishmael describes his need to be out on the ocean:

"[W]henever 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. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." (3)
So I continued. I fear, though, that I did not do this giant of Classical literature justice. I managed to get about halfway through before feeling bogged down, distracting myself for months with other books, and coming completely away from Melville's world, before forcing myself to buckle down and "get 'er done."

I'm pretty sure the basics of the plot are familiar to almost everyone. Ishmael, our narrator, is a sailor on the Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod. The ship's Captain Ahab has lost his leg to an aggressive, giant, white Sperm Whale and he is mad with his need for revenge. The story revolves around the Pequod's adventures as they sail for years around the world's oceans, searching for the vicious white whale. Ishmael also goes into great detail on every aspect of the different whales, as well as in-depth explanations of every aspect of whaling. There are also deep insights into human existence, and an abundance of creepy foreshadowing of the doom of the Pequod's crew. The inexorable march towards their final days is especially haunting.

If I were stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book, Moby Dick would at least be one of the front runners. There is so much going on that one could read and ponder it for years without getting bored. I can barely scratch the surface here, but in the interests of brevity I will simply address two things that caught my attention.

First, Melville is something of a master at linking whaling to truths about life. Over and over again, the entire book is peppered with insightful connections:

"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side." (306)

The second aspect of Moby Dick that struck me was Ishmael's (and probably Melville's) attitude towards the whale. As something of an animal lover who would rather not glory in the suffering of any living thing, I sometimes had a hard time with the killing scenes. But Melville also appeared to have great respect and sympathy for the whale. Chapter after chapter is dedicated to the historical and physical importance and majesty of the great whale. Although later in the book, Ishmael states that whales cannot be hunted to decimation like the American Buffalo, there are passages that tend to decry the savagery of the whale hunt:

"As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all." (391)
"The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter, was the first whaleman; and to the eternal honor of our calling be it said, that the first whale attacked by our brotherhood was not killed with any sordid intent. Those were the knightly days of our profession, when we only bore arms to succor the distressed, and not to fill men's lampfeeders."(395)

It was long, and at times it was frustratingly slow, but I'm glad I read it. There's so much to it; it's one of the few that I think I might revisit in the future.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of Sophia's reviews, check outMy Life As Seen Through Books.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

(Header illustratation by Ben Rothery.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Az

    I first read Moby Dick when I was about 11 or 12 and just fell massively in love with it. I read it at least once a year and no matter what my situation is when I read it, I always find some sort of enlightment or at the very least comfort in it. I collect different editions of the book and my favorite by far is an old, battered copy of the edition Heather Duke carries around in Heathers ("Eskimo!") which was given to me by a very dear friend who has never even seen Heathers!

  • ,

    "sometimes even funny"

    To my surprise, yes. Yes, it is.

  • Reading Herman Melville is like listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn. I recognize the greatness but can't read/listen to any of it.

  • logan

    Hell man I'd buy you a drink just for reading the whole thing. I slogged through 200 pages or so and decided I'd rather be keelhauled than finish it.

  • zeke_the_pig

    Fantastic narrative, incredible atmosphere, gloriously brooding characters; but then - BUT THEN - interminable droning passages about outdated whale lore that turn the mind into a slovenly hammock.
    That's zeke's take

  • Dragonchild

    "A Whalesong of Ice and Fire" by Herman R. R. Melville

  • You may have already known this, but 'Moby Dick' was based in part on a true story. A whaling ship out of Nantucket called 'The Essex' was sunk by a sperm whale they were hunting. The whale, according to the crew, was unusually aggressive and seemed to deliberately target the harpoon boats.

  • Rebecca

    Nathaniel Philbrick's 'In the Heart of the Sea," which she mentions having read, is a nonfictional telling of the story of the Essex and her survivors.

  • Anne At Large

    Ooh, now that I am curious about. Melville, still on the fence.

  • What if you knew that Melville had a deep and unrequited love affair with NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE?

    (This is a true statement. Melville was besotted with Nate. He even dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. However, something happened one evening during a snow storm and the friendship ended soon after. There's a marked difference between Melville's writing before the break and after it. Melville breaks my heart.)

  • Anne At Large

    Whoah. And I love Hawthorne. So many feelings about this. Weirdest gossip I've ever gotten from Pajiba.

  • Dragonchild

    "[W]henever 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."

    When I wrote sentences this long in school I was rightly dinged for it. This is my issue with Melville; his prose is awful and for no justifiable reason at that. It's painful to read a single sentence of his work, but they're ALL like this. That's a single sentence on the very first page, and it's 78 words long. I might've miscounted by a bit but that would scarcely make a difference.

  • East Coast Ugly

    You'll love Cormac McCarthy...

  • You weren't writing Moby-Dick in school, though. Just because you aren't the writer Melville is doesn't mean Melville is "awful for no justifiable reason."

    I'm sorry you can't appreciate the rhythm of that sentence -- how it builds from shorter phrases to longer as the feelings of alienation and depression concentrate. But it's not bad writing. That sentence isn't too long. It's too long for you; but that's a personal matter and (God knows) none of my business.

  • Dragonchild

    My point is that a similar style, by anyone who isn't both famous and dead, would be considered unacceptable to ANY writing teacher or professor. Your defense is just an appeal to authority, which is ironic because that's the very fallacy I'm attacking with my argument. If you LIKE the above sentence as-is, OK. To each one's own. But I find it amusing that your argument that I'm being subjective amounts to subjectivity and argumentum ad hominem.

    For what it's worth, my reading comprehension is at a level where I read legal documents DELIBERATELY written to prevent people from understanding them in the first place. I can understand Melville's writing just fine. The problem is the opposite; I can not only understand what he's writing, but the expectations he places on the reader in his stylistic choices. That's basically the level of understanding I need to "appreciate" it, except I'm going to have the audacity to question his decision to write that way. I could go into great detail about why it's so awful if not for the fear that I'd just be wasting words.

    That said, if you grok writing as well as you claim, at the very least you should probably tone down the fallacies. Whether they're done out of ignorance or malice, it doesn't bolster your implicit case that appreciating "Moby Dick" is a sort of intellectual credential.

  • When people ask us, "How'd the two of you become such BFFs?" I'll say, "Well, it started with misreading, and then we tried on hats in a fashion montage."

    I don't think appealing to authority is what I'm doing. What I'm saying is: if you like Melville -- or Dickens or Tolstoy or that guy who writes about dragons or that lady who writes (poorly) about the Tudors -- then you're going to like their sentences. And you're not (necessarily) liking them because of any appeal to authority. You like them because they feel good in your brain or in your mouth or however you read.

    I like Melville. A lot. I think he's a fine writer. I like his sentences. I also think some writers use sentences the way some musicians use rhythm and time-signatures. A prolonged sentence can increase the reader's tension; she (or he) (or they) (look: it's none of my business the permutations of your reading habits) is in a position of not knowing when that thought is coming to an end, and may not feel in control of the direction of the thought. (The same effect is achieved in long tracking shots in film. Like the opening of Boogie Nights, for instance.)

    I'm FASCINATED with sentences like that. I don't love ALL sentences that do that. You can't pay me enough money to read Molly Bloom's stream-of-consciousness in Ulysses. (Well, okay: you could. But it would be a LOT of moneys.) It goes back, though, to personal taste: you like what you like. I guess I was reacting poorly to your Authoritative Pronouncement that This is a Bad Sentence. (Also, this is where the real irony is. I wasn't appealing to authority; I was merely commenting on your proposed authority.)

    Anyway -- let's meet at Spencer's Gifts in the mall for the hat thing and then we'll drink a ton of Orange Juliuses.

  • His_Chiefness

    Yes - you are absolutely spot on. It doesn't matter how long a sentence might be when what that sentence is actually doing is of value. If a sentence takes one word or a hundred words but delivers its meaning and tone and evokes the desired emotional response in us, then it can neither be too long nor too short. It's exactly the correct length.

  • Marry me.

    'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'

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