by Herman Melville
“We do not judge a masterpiece by its flaws, but by its virtues.”
That line is included in the introduction to my copy of Moby Dick and it was an incredibly helpful thing to remember. In my opinion, the book is flawed, of course it is. It’s a massive undertaking that covers many themes, writing styles and subjects. Melville was incredibly ambitious in what he tried to do with the novel and in taking on so many different formats and points-of-view, some of them inevitably failed, but in spite of that, the book has an undeniable magnetism.
At times I felt like I was slogging through chapters. It was a bit like cross country skiing. It’s hard work, occasionally you hit a slick spot a slide along quickly, but mainly you're just pulling yourself forward slowly, with all of your energy and strength. Then the final 20 chapters were like a downhill streak. They went so quickly that it almost made me forget the struggle through the middle section.
I was incredibly glad I read this for the read-along hosted by The Blue Bookcase. Knowing that I had weekly deadlines and discussions was a great motivation to pick it up when I didn’t feel like it.
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.”
The main thing I took away from this book was the beauty of the writing, like the above quote. Sometimes Melville would ramble on about the details of whale anatomy or the perils of the whaling profession, but he does it in such an eloquent way. Every time I got a bit bogged down in all Melville's facts and ideas, his writing grounded me. He has a beautiful way of phrasing things, but it often seemed like he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to educate or entertain his readers. In chapters like 32, where he gave a lesson in the different types of whales, I got bored. Then, a few chapter later in 42, he talked about the whiteness of the whale and how that heightens its terrifying nature because white is a color we associate with beauty, innocence, royalty, etc. When that’s paired with a murderous beast it makes it all the more horrifying.
“…that heightened hideousness, it might be said, only rises from the circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast. But even assuming all this to be true; yet, were it not for the whiteness, you would not have that intensified terror.”
On to some of the specifics in the book, which will include some SPOILERS.
I was really glad Melville explained exactly how they track Moby Dick, because finding a specific whale in a vast ocean seemed far-fetched to me at first. Once he explained how they track the drifting of the whale’s food and the tides it made a lot more sense.
I think the fact that Ahab had a wife and child makes his madness so much more tragic. Towards the end he talks about the fact that he widowed his wife the day he married her. I’ve heard of a book called Ahab’s Wife and now I’m curious if that’s any good. Has anyone read it?
For me, the pinnacle of Ahab’s madness came in ch.128 when he turns down the request from a captain of a fellow whaling ship (the Rachel) to help look for his 12-year-old son that is on a missing boat. This is the first time Ahab's obsession really hurts someone else. He makes a conscience decision to choose his pursuit of the whale over helping someone in need and to me that proves that he's lost all perspective. He's refusing to help a man find his son, when he is a father and should know how important this is. This is where he crosses the line and he never really returns from that decision. In a strange way Ahab is both the villain and hero of the book. He is admired and feared, triumphant and broken. He has survived a whale attack, but can’t seem to move on with his life. He must have been a good captain at some point to gain the loyalty and respect of Starbuck, but we never really see that side of him.
“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”
I am so grateful for Melville's sense of humor. The book has some wonderful elements, but without a bit of humor I think it would have felt incredibly heavy. The first section is the most entertaining, but Melville throws a few comedic bits in every so often. I thought the section about Queequeg’s coffin was hilarious. The harpooner is near death with sickness and requests a coffin be made for his burial. Then, after lying in it to confirm it will suffice, he miraculously recovers, declaring that anyone can get better if they decide to. Then he uses the coffin to store his belongings in! That wry sense of humor was sprinkled throughout the book, especially at the beginning.
“Heaven have mercy on all of us – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked in the head, and sadly need mending.”
In the end of the story the coffin returns to save Ishmael’s life. How amazing that something created for one man’s death ends up being another man’s salvation. I’m still in shock when I think about what Ishmael experienced when he watched his friends and shipmates die and was then stranded in the ocean, surrounded by sharks, for two days. It seems like madness would be inevitable.
Melville created a wide and strange cast of characters; Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Bildad, Tashtego, Daggoo, Peleg, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and all the others connected with the ill-fated Pequod. They grew on me throughout the story, especially Starbuck with his misplaced loyalty to Ahab. He had a lot of wisdom.
“‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”
There are so many breath-taking descriptions in this book. The mother whales nursing, the two dead whale heads hanging off the Pequod, the descriptions of whales’ eyes and ears. All of it was odd, but also interesting. Melville brought a foreign world into my home and made me feel like I was seeing these strange new sights along with Ishmael.
The murder of the old whale in ch.81 is one particularly vicious example of this. It shocks not only the reader, but Ishmael too. After pages and pages of hearing about it in theory, to see the kill actually happen is startling and makes it all seem so much more real.
“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.
As we near the end of the story Starbuck’s desperate attempts to shake Ahab from his obsession are heartbreaking. He tries again and again to make him turn back and drives the point home by saying that Moby Dick is not pursuing Ahab. It’s easy to forget this because Moby Dick is painted as the villain, lashing out against Ahab and taking his leg. In reality, he is just a whale trying to save himself. It’s Ahab’s one-sided fight and his actions have tragic repercussions for everyone else.
When people talk about Moby Dick they always say it isn't really about a whale and I always thought that was silly. I thought, well yes, I get that there are other issues and themes, but really, it is about a whale. But now I understand, the hunt for the whale is part of the story, but it is seriously about so much more than that.
I have always been curious about this book and I’m so glad I finally read it. My curiosity has been sated and it lived up to my expectations. Yes, there are parts that drag. Yes, he talks a LOT about whaling. Yes, there is not a clear A to B kind of plot and the characters fade in and out of the narrative. But as much as Melville meanders and pontificates, in the end he’s created an epic story. It’s about obsession, man’s relationship with nature, revenge, religion, insanity and so much more.
And it is one strangely enthralling tale.
I’ll leave you with one of those amazing lines that made me fall for the book…
“These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”
Here’s the link to my first post.
p.s. I made one exception to my clothes buying ban to get the Out of Print Moby Dick t-shirt I'm wearing in the pic above. It was my present (to myself) for finishing the book and I used a gift card, so that doesn’t count, right?
Photo by the Huz