I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I started reading Moby Dick. Of course everyone is familiar with Ahab and the Pequod and “Call me Ishmael,” possibly the most famous opening line in American literature. I knew that Starbuck was more than a source for satisfying my frappuccino craving and, thanks to Dana Scully’s ill-fated pomeranian, I knew there was a character called Queequeg, but that was about it. Opening to page 1 of this 135-chapter behemoth, I was pretty much a blank slate.
My first surprise was how much takes place before we ever hit the water. Indeed, Ahab doesn’t appear until a solid 150 pages into the novel. Allusions are made to him and an air of mystery develops around the Captain, but we don’t actually see him until he steps out onto the deck in Chapter 28. When Ahab does finally appear, Ishmael is impressed. He sees Ahab sitting on an ivory stool and likens him to a Danish king of old. “How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of the leviathans was Ahab.”
Similarly, the great
fish whale himself is known only by reputation for the majority of the tale. Half-sitings and stories of terror drive towards the inevitable final conflict. When Steven Spielberg made a movie about a shark, the mediocrity of the special effects forced him to take this same approach. Melville was not only ahead of his time, but his was a conscious decision rather than one dictated by a silly-looking muppet shark.
I have no idea what you’re talking about
In all descriptions of Moby Dick, the whiteness of the whale is emphasized (look no further than Chapter 42, entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale”). After praising the beauty of creatures like white steeds and the albatross, Ishmael launches into an attack against whiteness that will prompt Albino readers to contact the ACLU in short order. Seriously, check out these harsh words: “The Albino is as well made as other men–has not substantive deformity–and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion.” Damn, Melville, no need to go all complexion-shaming on the Albinos. The whole argument is odd to me, at any rate. What makes him think that just because something is white it is the most atrocious and terrifying of its kind?
My God, he’s right!
While Melville builds up to the final conflict, the Pequod encounters other whales and whaling ships along the way. In one incident, the ship comes upon a pod of right whales, which Ishmael describes as having “Venetian blinds” in their mouths in reference to their fringe-like baleen. Such elegant descriptions are, to me, among the most glorious moments in this book.
Close to the half-way point in the novel, one of the crew kills a whale. This was a troubling passage for me, because on the one hand they are killing a magnificent creature, and on the other hand, the writing is transportive: “The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men.”
I don’t want to read about dying whales, but that’s a pretty damn beautiful description. Of course I also understand that this story takes place in the 19th Century, and these men killing whales are not doing it for joy but to earn a living and survive. Nowadays you’d have to be a total asshole to kill a magnificent creature for fun.
Much has been written about Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, understandably since it drives the entire plot of the novel. In contrast, the crew meets a British captain who has lost an arm to the famous whale. Ahab questions the captain about whether he has seen Moby Dick since and the Englishman affirms. When Ahab pushes him about whether he couldn’t “fasten” to the whale, the Englishman replies, “Didn’t want to try to: ain’t one limb enough?” Not for Ahab, apparently! There is a moment late in the tale where Starbuck is trying to talk Ahab into going home, and it seems almost as if Ahab may relent. But good sense flees permanently and Ahab pushes onward. At one point Starbuck points out an ill omen to his captain and Ahab responds, “Omen? omen?. . . If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives darkling hint!”
Geez Louise, man!! God has given you more frickin’ omens than there are chapters in this book. A sampling of bad omens includes a sermon on Jonah and the whale, a random guy named Elijah (as in the prophet) predicting the ship is doomed, a giant squid, a hawk stealing Ahab’s hat, a crew member dreaming about Ahab’s death, and coffins frickin’ everywhere. He’s done everything shy of tattooing “Go home, or I will eat you all!” on Moby Dick’s butt! Ahab is the kind of guy that forces companies to post super obvious warning signs.
Ahab: If God didn’t want me to eat these he wouldn’t have invented the epipen.
So there’s no talking sense to Ahab, and he and the ship are doomed. You probably knew that much from the beginning, but even if you didn’t, the Jonah sermon should have clued you in.
All joking aside, I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to earn the right to review this book. To take a novel that has influenced writers from Norman Mailer to Peter Benchley to Toni Morrison and has inspired film, radio, and television adaptations too numerous to mention, and apply a rating from 1 to 5 just seems small. To gripe that I’m not interested in an entire chapter explaining how to extract oil from whales or how to swab the deck afterwards would be to miss the point entirely.