Themes Explored: the limits of knowledge, the deceptiveness of fate, the exploitative nature of whaling, whiteness (as in the idea that the color white represents evil or non-existence), depth, surfaces, revenge, death, whales, morality, whale anatomy, friendship, sailing, faith, perception, reality, mental illness, fate, economic expansion, modernism
Synopsis: In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: Moby-Dick is one of those dreaded novels that everyone talks about but hardly anyone reads. Except for high school students who have to trudge through the book and try to make sense of the convoluted narrative. I had to read both Moby Dick and War and Peace over the summer of my junior year of high school; an experience I am not likely to forget. War and Peace at least became enjoyable after fighting through the first third of the narrative. Unfortunately, Moby Dick lost its way somewhere between the opening sentence and the proceeding chapters. Herman Melville just could not make up his mind as to what kind of book to write: a fictionalized story about whaling or an encyclopedia about whaling. So he ended up writing a book that borrows from both ideas. The result is a slow moving narrative bogged down by unnecessary explorations into whale anatomy and the art of whaling.
In order to fully understand the novel, it is imperative to know about the author. Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City; he was the third of eight children. After a string of bad luck, the family business failed, Melville’s father died and Melville began working at the age of thirteen. After a few short years of formal education, Melville became and elementary school teacher at the age of eighteen. Shortly afterwards, this career ended and he became a newspaper reporter. Melville went on his first sea voyage at the age of nineteen as a merchant sailor on a ship bound for Liverpool. He returned to America the following summer and went West to make his fortune. However, this did not last long and he soon moved back East. At the age of twenty-one, Melville resorted to signing up for a whaling voyage of indefinite destination aboard the Acushnet.
The Acushnet took Melville around South America, across the Pacific Ocean, and to the South Seas; where he abandoned ship with another sailor. This proved to be a bad idea as they ended up stranded on the Marquesas Islands and met with a tribe of cannibals. Melville lost contact with his companion and spent a month with the cannibals; he obviously left alive. This experience influenced his first three novels: Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849). Moby Dick first appeared in 1851 and is considered Melville’s masterpiece.
By the time Moby Dick was published, the whaling industry was dying out. Whales were nearing extinction and whale oil substitutes were taking over the market. Despite the cultural references woven throughout the novel, Moby Dick was a failure. This disaster moved Melville to write using increasingly more experimental styles before he just gave up on novel writing and became a poet. Moby Dick remained a largely unknown novel until the 1920’s when it was “rediscovered” and promoted by literary historians. To these critics, Moby Dick represented a pivotal moment in American history.
One of the main problems with Moby Dick is that Melville could not decide what to write. The first eighty pages of the novel show the beginnings of a charming and intriguing tale about the life of whalers. Some of the prose borders inspired. However, after those first few pages, the book unwinds into long winded ramblings about whaling that try the reader’s patience. Ahab, perhaps the most iconic character, does not even appear until the 28th chapter of a 135 chapter novel. Most of the chapters read like a whaling manual with essays about whales, whaling, and seafarer culture. Melville also enjoys including a lot of references. The novel contains over 300 endnotes about sailing terminology, bible quotations, and literary references.
A majority of literary critics describe Moby-Dick as an elemental novel in which the outsider Ishmael rails against the sea while grappling with the meaning behind of existence. Ishmael is the quintessential outsider. He never reveals much about himself and spends most of his time searching for some answer to his spiritual malaise. As a character, he represents the contradiction between the story and the setting. Melville attempts to create a philosophically deep tale set in a world of largely uneducated men. Of them all, Ishmael stands out as the only one with formal book learning and come across more as an instrument of the author than a character. Ishmael is not meant to come across as fully developed; he exists to merely tell someone else’s story. Indeed, he even disappears from the narrative for long stretches of time to make way for dramatic soliloquies from Captain Ahab.
Captain Ahab is a tragic character. He possesses a tremendous amount of overconfidence and vengeance. Ever since biting off his leg, Moby Dick represents everything Ahab considers evil in the world. As such, Ahab allows his hatred of the whale to consume him. This obsession causes Ahab to believe the he must kill Moby Dick because it is his divine fate to destroy evil in the world. Hence, a faceoff between himself and the whale is a destined event. Ahab spends most of his time pontificating on various philosophical and existential matters. Most of his dialogue does nothing to further the plot. But it does serve to cement Ahab as a thoroughly insane person. No one in their right mind sets out on a revenge mission against a whale.
The overall plot is of the train wreck and long winding variety. There is no genuine conflict driving the action of the narrative. Part of the reason for this is most of the action occurred before the events of the book. All the events in the narrative occur because Ahab already lost his battle with sanity. Once Ahab lost his leg, he honed his anger into hyper-vengeance towards the whale. He gathers his crew and sets off to kill the great evil beast. This narrative merely draws out the long road towards destruction that Ahab set for his crew. Overall, the book is better on the second read through. Read it the first time to get a sense of the story. Than read it a second time when you know which chapters to skip. The reading experience if greatly improved upon if you skip the chapters about whaling the second time through.
Three fun facts: the name Moby Dick was based off this article by Jeremiah Reynolds about a sperm whale named Mocha Dick; Starbucks, the coffee company, was named after the character Starbuck; Melville named Ahab’s ship the Pequod after the Pequot Fort, famous for a battle in 1637, in Connecticut.
Moby Dick, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, ISBN 9781593080181