Postmortem: Moby-Dick


I wrote about Moby-Dick once before, when I was only one-quarter done. Well, I’ve finally finished.

What a strange, unusual book.

Really, it felt like two separate books that happened to be shoved between the same covers.

The first book is the story of the narrator Ishmael, the ship Pequod, her crew, her captain Ahab, and his infamous obsession with a certain seafaring mammal. The story begins with  Ishmael and his newfound best friend, the tattooed cannibal Queequeg. But once these two set foot on the ship (over a hundred pages in), Melville seems to forget all about them, and focus shifts completely to the rest of the crew and their quest. It’s an odd decision, given how much time’s been invested in the original pair, but the Pequod turns out to be an interesting place.

The crew is a wild assortment of characters, all unique and mostly compelling. The first mate, Starbuck, is a courageous and rational foil to the madness of Ahab. The second mate, Stubb, is a sort of Shakespearean jester, spouting nonsense that’s as real as anything else going on. Pip, a boy who is (rather unfairly) reviled for cowardice, develops a bond with Ahab late in the book which is unlike any other relationship I’ve ever read about.

And the style. The style is simply gorgeous, poetry rendered as prose: rich, like cheesecake, so it has to be savored slowly.

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

This book, the first book, I loved. This book is the one people quote, the one that calls generation after generation back to its song.

But as I said, there is a second book as well, its chapters all mixed and interleaved with the first. I will call this second book Herman Melville Wants to Tell You Some Things About Whales. Mostly nonfiction, mostly disconnected from the story, often strung together two or three in a row, these chapters read like boring essays by somebody obsessed with whaling. Their style is turgid and weak, the opinions they offer are not very convincing, and overall, you just wish he’d get on with it.

Here’s a sample:

In the first place, I wish to lay before you a particular, plain statement, touching the living bulk of this leviathan, whose skeleton we are briefly to exhibit. Such a statement may prove useful here.

According to a careful calculation I have made, and which I partly base upon Captain Scoresby’s estimate, of seventy tons for the largest sized Greenland whale of sixty feet in length; according to my careful calculation, I say, a Sperm Whale of the largest magnitude, between eighty-five and ninety feet in length, and something less than forty feet in its fullest circumference, such a whale will weigh at least ninety tons; so that, reckoning thirteen men to a ton, he would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants.

Think you not then that brains, like yoked cattle, should be put to this leviathan, to make him at all budge to any landsman’s imagination?

Having already in various ways put before you his skull, spout-hole, jaw, teeth, tail, forehead, fins, and divers other parts, I shall now simply point out what is most interesting in the general bulk of his unobstructed bones. But as the colossal skull embraces so very large a proportion of the entire extent of the skeleton; as it is by far the most complicated part; and as nothing is to be repeated concerning it in this chapter, you must not fail to carry it in your mind, or under your arm, as we proceed, otherwise you will not gain a complete notion of the general structure we are about to view.

Perhaps this brief sample doesn’t seem too bad. Maybe it even seems interesting. If so, trust me, the novelty wears off after a hundred pages.

I know that many critics defend this “second book,” saying it’s important to the structure of the novel, or that it enriches the story, or whatever else. But I have to believe that if Melville had published the “first book” alone, and somebody else years later had added the other stuff, nobody in their right mind would prefer the latter version.

Well, it is what it is. And as I said before, the highs redeem the lows. Poets and masochists must read Moby-Dick.


3 responses to “Postmortem: Moby-Dick

  1. I think the problem is that, once a novel is declared to be “great,” some people feel obligated to defend it on all fronts. Which isn’t realistic, since a work of art can have all sorts of elements, both great and silly. Ulysses is wildly uneven and, in places, deliberately impenetrable. Huckleberry Finn and Gravity’s Rainbow get stupid at the end. Moby Dick has all those chapters about whaling. Live Through This is a great album with one stupid song at the end (which I never listen to). I love Les Miserables, but I always skip past “A Heart full of Love.”

    I’m wandering, but you get the point. The weak parts don’t diminish the great ones in any way. Prometheus is an incredible movie to watch despite apparently having been written by monkeys.

    • Agreed. Opinions have momentum, especially on anything as subjective as art.

      By the way, if you’ve finished Ulysses AND Gravity’s Rainbow, my hat’s off to you. You, sir, are made of sterner stuff than I.

      • With Ulysses, by far the more difficult of the two, I had the advantage of studying it in a summer session in college (six weeks, and the only course I was taking, so it was very immersive).
        GR is easier. It’s far from my favorite Pynchon, though. I’d vote for Mason & Dixon as his masterpiece, and I’m obsessed with Inherent Vice (spent five months reading it over and over when it came out, and I’m reading it again now (imagining the movie).

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