Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale by Herman Melville (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992; originally published in 1851. 672 pp)
Herman Melville was an American author best known for his work, Moby-Dick. A best-selling author with his first three books, Moby-Dick did not sell well and Melville’s popularity never returned. He died in 1891.
*Spoiler Alert: We talk about the entire book here*
A Sweeping Epic
Melville’s sweeping epic details the story of Ishmael and the voyage of the whaling vessel, Pequod. The ship’s eccentric captain, Ahab, sails with a personal vendetta against a white whale, Moby-Dick, who is the source of Ahab’s missing leg from a previous sailing endeavor.
Moby-Dick details the minutiae of whaling, the expanse of the open seas, whale anatomy, and the chase of a dreaded killer.
Andrew: Donovan, Moby-Dick begins with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael.” Why does that line stand the test of time?
Donovan: Good question. The line isn’t incredibly poetic. It’s no “Best of times—worst of times” flowered language. Yet, the opening lines contain their own beauty.
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world” (3).
Interestingly, Melville rarely mentions Ishmael’s name outside of this opening line. As the narrator, we don’t often hear Ishmael become self-referential.
Etymologically, Melville might be attempting to attach Moby-Dick’s principal character with the biblical Ishmael—a restless wanderer, the non-favored son of Abraham. Of note, Melville doesn’t have this character state, “My name is Ishmael.” Instead, it’s “Call me.” Certainly, Melville is building the metaphor here.
Donovan: Ishmael befriends a cannibal soon after this book begins. What does this relationship mean, Andrew?
Andrew: Melville writes,
“How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair” (52).
When Ishamael is forced to share a bed with a “savage,” his original horror turns into loving-kindness. In what some commentators consider to be a relationship with severe homoerotic overtones, I found it to be much more a commentary on the cultural relationships at the time. A mutual dependence is formed between Queequeg and Ishamael, one whose bonds could have only been formed through the trials the sea provides. The reader sees that the men on the Pequod are really more than shipmates; they are family.
The family endures much together, even tolerating captain Ahab’s manic behavior. What Melville does through the telling of the relationship between Queequeg and Ishamel is that he depicts a cultural commentary of the time. While others would find a savage like Quequeg to be deplorable, Ishmael is able to look beyond the man, and find a brother, something that I tremendously admire for a man during this time period.
Andrew: Moby-Dick centers on whaling and its economic importance. What role does work play in this book, Donovan?
Donovan: Melville rives work in two separate categories. On one side, he extols the depths to which whalers descend in order to obtain blubber, a necessary resource for 19th century New England.
In fact, Melville makes a point to describe the danger of such tasks and the heavy payment in blood required for societal gain. He notes,
“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” (224).
Clearly, the pleasure we experience comes with a price.
And yet, Melville also exudes an everything-is-meaningless attitude with the work of those on the Pequod. Despite all of their hard work, does it really matter when none of them get to return to the ones they love? Are we all eventually faced with solitude and an unending look into the abyss?
Donovan: Ahab is a complex character. Andrew, can you make heads or tails of him?
Andrew: He certainly is. Consider this passage:
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar” (421).
Something that I noticed during this whale of a novel (har-har), is that Ahab, though incredibly insane, is a hero nonetheless. He represents an ancient sort of hero, like one you could find in Shakespeare. Much like in a Shakespearean tragedy, Ahab suffers from a single fatal flaw. His overconfidence leads him to defy any sort of common sense, and he believes that he is legitimately finding a way to kill evil. Killing evil is truly the noblest of acts, and he believes it to be his task to finally do away with the evil Moby-Dick represents. As much as a victim of his past as he is a hero, Ahab is able to soar above the gorge is a mesmerizing sort of catastrophe. I think that we all as humans have an intrinsic ability to be like Ahab, where we are oblivious to our own hubris, sometimes to our downfall.
On Ahab’s death, Melville writes:
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; 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. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (564).
Ahab dies like he lived, defiant, yet aware of his downfall. This famous quote kept me in awe for some time. I noticed that spiritually, Ahab was already in hell. He was defiant, to the end, even stabbing at the beast from the spiritual depths of hell. After all his yelling, all his work, and all the megalomaniacal ramblings, Ahab dies. What’s worse, after his last breath, there is silence, a quiet last blow to Ahab’s unfulfilled destiny and dream.
Andrew: Donovan, Melville often pauses the narrative to provide detailed reports of whale anatomy. I’ve heard many grumble over these passages. Were they worth it?
Donovan: They were entirely worth it! In fact, they might have been my favorite part of the novel. I didn’t find these passages dry. Instead, they illuminated the scientific work of Melville’s day and gave Moby-Dick incredible depth.
Even more, the passages on anatomy aren’t even that dry. Melville is incredibly skilled at making these passages poetic.
Consider this section introducing a whale tail:
“Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail” (410).
For my, Moby-Dick impresses because the book carries incredible depth and flexibility. The novel merges riveting narrative, scientific articles, one-act plays, poetry, and literary fiction flawlessly. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.
Donovan: What did you think of the book, Andrew?
Andrew: I had heard so many negative things about this book. “It’s way too long” or “the chapters on anatomy are just too laborious” were common points. However, upon reading it I found a cultural commentary, poetry, and overall amazing prose throughout the novel. I think that Melville is a master wordsmith and storyteller. He made every word count, something rarely found in novels these days. The story of the sea, relationships formed between sailors, the anatomy of the whale, and a crazy captain seeking the destruction of evil incarnate made for a wonderful read. Moby-Dick is a classic for a reason. No matter what you’ve heard, everyone should try and read it.
Andrew’s Verdict: 5 out of 5
Donovan’s Verdict: 5 out of 5