What a book. It has taken weeks to get through the almost 700 pages, and I now know a whole lot more about whales than I used to – which is weird.
At times, this book was perplexing. The language is deeply complex and at times archaic. It also doesn’t help that a lot of sailor’s drivel is thrown in there (though the publisher thoughtfully provided a glossary of nautical terms in the back of my version).
Then, however, at other times the language is beautiful, poignant and immensely clever. There is no doubt that there’s a reason Moby-Dick is a classic. It’s beautiful. Though, I must admit I found it strange and at times gross. There’s a lot of whale gore.
The other strange thing is that this isn’t just a straightforward fiction novel. Melville writes from the perspective of Ishmael: he writes some chapters in the first person recounting Ishmael’s experiences; at other times he writes in third person speaking of Captain Ahab or other characters; some chapters are written in the form of a play; and yet other chapters are written like an essay, complete with headings and sections. This style threw me off.
In a nutshell: all you need to know is that an obsessed Captain Ahab is determined to hunt down the legendary White Whale named Moby Dick who once caused the amputation of one of his legs. He orders his crew (including our protagonist Ishmael) to scour the seas in search of this whale, to kill it and get his vengeance. They also catch other whales. And they die slowly. And blood goes everywhere. It’s explained in detail. Ugh.
I was first taken aback my Melville’s writing in this passage:
I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in midwinter just landed from a four years’ dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet.
What a clever way of phrasing that! ‘The land seemed scorching to his feet’. I love that.
There are also deep philosophical echoes throughout the story – an example:
So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.
This, a cute metaphor explaining how two whale heads are rigged up on the boat at either side to keep it balanced. Relating the boat to the mind like this, and certain schools of thought that can make you think this way or that – again, so clever!
Another stand-out passage was from the start of Chapter One Hundred and Seven:
Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.
I could talk about how Melville wistfully and beautifully renders the air as feminine and the sea as masculine, or the creepy scene where the whalers squeeze and rub and hold hands together in whale sperm (not literally sperm – but a substance called spermicati). A truly disturbing part to read.
At times, Moby-Dick was frustrating to read, a others amusing, at others it was so boring my eyes just skimmed over the words without bothering to understand, and at even others I was awe-struck at the gorgeous use of language! What would you expect from a book nearly 700 pages long, though?
I kind of wish Melville had written this in only 200 pages, and spared us the boring stuff. But he did what he did, and I’m still glad I read this 🙂