Moby Dick

  • Author: Herman Melville

  • Published: October, 1851

What is there to say about Moby Dick that hasn’t already been said? The truthful answer is not much. Just google Moby Dick and you’ll find more reviews and dissertations than you can wade through. As such, I’ll leave the analysis to better minds and writers. I will however, briefly describe my experience reading the novel, as an excuse to let you know that I read the book in full, and should be admired and celebrated for it. 

The 1851 epic, written by Herman Melville remains a towering achievement. The story is informed by Melville’s own experiences on whaling boats, and by the true life experience of the Essex, a Nantucket whale ship that sunk far off the coast of South America after a Sperm Whale had rammed her in a fit of rage. The book was a flop during Melville’s life, selling a mere 3,200 copies and quickly falling out of print. In the 1920’s, word of mouth among literary critics and writers breathed renewed life into its pages, and Moby Dick slowly gained the exalted status it had been denied for almost a century.

Moby Dick is many things, but a straight-forward novel is not one of them. It’s also part historical document, scientific treatise, philosophical essay and for the reader, a trial in perseverance. 

By the end of Moby Dick you’ll have a deep and visceral understanding of the whaling life. You’ll know exactly what it took to kill and harvest oil from these massive beasts, using nothing more than row boats, lances and harpoons. The chapters pertaining to both the hunt and harvest of these doomed creatures are the most fun to read, not only for the thrill of the chase but for the aftermath of the kill. The toil and drama involved in such a massive butchering is morbidly fascinating. Rotating and peeling the blubber off of a dead whale, hoisted and harnessed to a ship’s side, is something unfathomable today for most us. This primordial and bloody business is all at once repulsive and captivating, brutal and delicate. Fighting off the schools of ravenous sharks and bothersome birds, burrowing deep into the whale’s bowels to extract the waxy and luxuriant ambergris, and stuffing barrel after barrel with blubber and oil are indeed grim tasks from a bygone era - but also the manliest and most rugged work I’ve ever read in print. One of the great pleasures of Moby Dick is reveling in the undeniable testosterone pouring off the page. Sailing, hunting and competition. Capture, slaughter, and celebration. It’s all here. Take the feeling you get when hooking a trout, and multiply by a million.

But that’s not to say Moby Dick is an unabashed whip cracking good time. Your trusty narrator Ishmael is a whale aficionado - and countless chapters dive deep into the anatomy, physiology and history of whales - sperm whales in particular. During these plodding examinations Melville’s prose occasionally sparkles (his almost stream-of-consciousness take on “The Whiteness of the Whale” meanders into a rich dream-like surrealism), but more often than not these detours are heavy, lumbering affairs that made me yearn to get back to the narrative. The obscure and countless whaling terms that litter the pages can also leave you scratching your head. Perhaps a more disciplined reader will delight in looking up the definitions, but I indifferently plowed ahead - Ahab’s white whale was a white whale, my white whale was becoming a book about a white whale. 

No spoilers here. But I can say the last few chapters of Moby Dick are a blast - thrilling, haunting and more than satisfying. Moby Dick is a challenging, arduous endeavor, and not for the feint of heart. But like any formidable task, it becomes all the more fulfilling because of its epic and dogged ambition. Just when you think you’ll have to put it down after a particularly taxing chapter, you’ll stumble upon some of the most beautiful prose in the english language, and close your eyes in wonder, savoring the picture in your mind. Take for instance, the simple and tranquil way Melville gives voice to all of our fears of the ocean:

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 story of Ahab’s obsessive and all consuming pursuit of the whale that took his leg has permeated throughout the world’s culture, and has become engrained in our collective imagination. One wishes Melville were alive to see his masterpiece gain the respect and relevance it deserves, but I imagine Melville wrote Moby Dick not for notoriety, but because he had to. When an epic idea like Moby Dick takes charge of your soul, there’s little one can do but pursue it to the last. Just ask Ahab.