Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years, but was (am) totally intimidated by. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since Matilda picks it up at the end of the movie, symbolizing her happily ever after (I was a bit obsessed with Matilda as a child). Over the years, I’ve occasionally stared at it – them, I should say, since I now own three copies – on my shelf. I felt guilty about not reading it for a class taught by one of my favorite professors in college. And yet, I never got around to actually picking it up. But ever since my success with reading War & Peace earlier this year, I decided to finally go for it.
I honestly don’t know where to start with this book, so here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.
I have to start off by saying: I learned more about whales from this book than I ever wanted or needed to. Full chapters were dedicated to the different kinds of whales, the process of butchering them, where their eyes are, what kind of line is used to catch them, what their tails look like, etc. When the synopsis calls Moby Dick part whaling encyclopedia, it is not an exaggeration. The whaling thing was interesting… to an extent. It’s this amount of detail that makes me wonder what Moby Dick would look like in the hands of a modern publisher. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic, and the whaling details are part of that, but Melville is extremely verbose and detailed. On the up side, if you’ve never seen a whale, the descriptions in this book will make you feel like you have.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
Obviously, there is a lot of action in this book. Captain Ahab really wants to kill that whale, and we get to witness his madness and how it affects the crew. We also see them hunting whales, which is interesting, though not my favorite part if I’m being honest. (I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor whales.) There’s shooting and boating and even some shark battles (i.e. what happens when you leave a whale carcass hanging over the side of your boat overnight).
A lot of the book is about the dynamics of a whaling ship, and the relationships between the crew. I enjoyed Ishmael’s perspective; it was almost objective, which served to highlight the conflicts between the other characters. Queenqueg was an unexpected favorite from the beginning. He’s hard-working and sensible, but also kind and sentimental. For a book written in the mid-1800s, Melville was surprisingly progressive in his portrayal of Queequeg, the “savage” who turns out to be a really nice guy who just happens to have different traditions. This was truly one of my favorite parts of the book. I also really enjoyed Starbuck (the namesake of everyone’s favorite coffee chain). As second in command, his logic and practicality worked to balance out Ahab’s madness just a tiny bit and added a more realistic aspect to the crazy whale quest (which everyone else jumped on board with, no questions asked).
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
Even though this book was long, and at times I questioned the necessity of so many details, I did love the writing. It was the perfect balance of unfussy and illustrative, and, in my opinion, definitely did justice to the story. I was, quite honestly, a bit blown away by the writing itself, because I was expecting something a bit more formal. But Melville has a style all his own, and I could see why he is such a beloved author and why Moby Dick is a classic piece of literature.
Overall, the story itself was entertaining, poignant, and unexpectedly funny. While on the surface, it addresses an experience most readers will never come close to – whaling – it is essentially a deeper and universal journey that everyone encounters at one point or another. It was unlike anything I’ve ever read – classic or otherwise – and definitely made an impression on me as a reader and as a writer. I was skeptical going in, but I now totally agree that this is one of those books everyone should read in their lifetime.
Have you read Moby Dick? What are your thoughts?