On Reading Moby-Dick


My copy.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, was published in 1851. It received a few scathing reviews and was quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1920s, during the so-called Melville Revival, that the novel was “discovered” as a major literary work, and college professors have been calling it a masterpiece ever since.

I’m reading it for the first time now, about a quarter of the way done. So far, I think the scorn and the praise both make perfect sense.

Moby-Dick is not an adventure story in the usual way. It is an adventure, but the text doesn’t hold to the main avenue of the plot. It wanders down meandering alleys, pointing out odd landmarks and exploring the districts where tourists don’t go. Melville shows us his characters, but he also shows us religion, philosophy, history, biology, the ocean and all it’s about and all it represents.

As a result, your enjoyment of the novel depends largely on how much you like (or tolerate) these excursions from the main narrative. Personally, I love philosophy and religious debates and poetic musings on the waves, so I’m liking it pretty well so far. (Again, only 25% done.) But if you just want to see what happens with Captain Ahab and his white whale, and if you see the rest of it as excess baggage, then you’re in for a long ride.

One huge factor is the expectations game. Several of my friends had already warned me away from the book, citing these hardships. I knew its reputation as a thick, difficult masterpiece. I knew what I was in for. That made the whole thing much more enjoyable than if I’d gone in looking for a brisk plot and gotten blindsided.

That said, the book isn’t nearly as difficult as I feared. The pleasure-to-pain ratio is much higher than, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or (God help us) Finnegans Wake. Despite all his excursions and wanderings, Melville is an able and amiable tour guide. You may not go where you expected, but you won’t get lost.

There are some things I don’t like. The main character, Ishmael, who narrates the story in first person, is probably my biggest gripe. As a window into the world of Moby-Dick, he’s fine, but as a character in his own right, he’s pretty bland. I don’t have much of a sense of who he is. I don’t love him or hate him. He’s just kind of there, which is a sharp contrast to the strongly drawn portraits of Ahab, Queequeg, and the rest.

I also didn’t much care for the infamous chapters devoted to detailed breakdowns of whale biology and taxonomy. The problem wasn’t, as I expected, the dryness or the apparent irrelevance; I actually like reading about whales for their own sake, so I didn’t mind that. The problem was the style. Melville writes:

It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you. Yet is it no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed…

Look, I don’t care if this chapter is disconnected from the plot. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be irrelevant, get on with it.

But the novel’s peaks more than compensate for the valleys.

In the scene I’m reading now, Captain Ahab reveals to his crew that this is no ordinary whaling trip. He’s got his eye on one prize in particular, the creature that took his leg. His first mate, Starbuck, reprimands him for seeking revenge on a mere animal:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

Ahab responds:

“[…] All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each eventโ€”in the living act, the undoubted deedโ€”there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. […]”

For an answer like that, yes indeed, I will keep reading.

10 responses to “On Reading Moby-Dick

  1. “He tasks me.”
    Where have I heard that… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Seriously, there’s a reason people go back to this book, despite its imperfections.

    • :-O I knew that sounded familiar but I wasn’t sure if it was Khan or something else! Looked it up just now. Kick-ass. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • There’s a lot of Moby-Dick quotes in that movie. ๐Ÿ™‚

        (“from hell’s heart I stab at thee…”)

        I had a teacher in high school who had been teaching Moby-Dick, in exactly the same way, for decades. It was excruciating. Nobody ever got over 45% on the final exam, which included things like “Name the nine gams of the Pequod, in order, and explain the significance of each.” The result of that educational exprience is that I never want to even come near the book again.

        A few years ago I was working on a novel and I wanted to base a chapter on those nine gams (or at least some of them). I even bought a copy of the book, but then I looked up what I needed online instead.

      • I had a high school teacher who took the same approach to MacBeth. We had to memorize the ingredients in the witches’ brew. Because, you know, that’s what Shakespeare was really all about. Sharing recipes.

  2. Moby Dick is on my “borrow from the library if I see it” list: I enjoy a dash of metaphysics potentially more than the next man, but do not want the almost necessity of enjoyment that comes with purchase.

    It moved closer to me actively seeking it out last year when I read China Mieville’s Railsea, which takes the basic plot of Moby Dick (and potentially some of the themes) and rebuilds it into dystopian science fiction.

  3. Wow, my 12 year old just HAD TO read it as part of her school’s reading project… She did not enjoy it (putting it kindly) I have not read it but I do understand from personal experience that the classics, most of the time if not always, require a knowledgeable guide to take a young person to that enjoyment only an adult like you, Brian could achieve… The torture it must have been for my daughter to try to extract the underlying message if only from the excerpt you shared here… Such a coincidence that just a few days ago I was recommended that my daughter also read To Kill a Mockingbird… Whew another heavy read ๐Ÿ™‚ anyway, your blog sure is a pleasure philosophy and all, jejejeee read you soon, Alexandra

  4. I was twelve when I read it first. It only really grew on me when I was reading it the second and third time, though. There are some parts of Moby Dick that I’ve read only once- because, like you said, they were boring. Then there are parts that I’ve read a few hundred times.

    There’s one scene near the end that I love- โ€œOh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky”- but I won’t go into detail. That part just makes me melt. There are other parts, too, all described so vividly, so thought-provokingly, that I would go back and read them over, just to make sure I got the full scope of the glorious picture. It makes me want to be there, to see the whales and albatrosses and the wind on the forecastle coming from the salty ocean. Such beautiful imagery is what makes it one of my favourite books of all time… although I still skip the whale anatomy and classification chapters. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And I liked Ishmael, actually. Perhaps he’s not the deepest of characters- though there are plenty of possibilities for inference- but his elusive, detached nature in itself makes him interesting.

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