Moby Dick

If you are one of the many people vaguely familiar with the basic story arc of Moby Dick (man, whale, revenge, conflict), and believe that this limited knowledge is probably sufficient to sustain you in life, then I would urge you to reconsider because you simply do not know what you are missing. As a girl whose interest in whaling went as far as "isn't the ocean pretty?," I think it's safe to say that I was not the prime market for this particular novel. I find its main proponents are, let's face it, generally men or anyone who has a great appreciation for the sea and vessels upon it. That said, I still found Moby Dick to be a marvelous work of literature whose place on the shelf of classics is well deserved. It might require a bit of persistence at times, but in the end, you'll be amply rewarded for your dedication. Indeed, I was incredibly surprised at how funny Herman Melville can be (perhaps even more so when he's not intending it) and I couldn't be more pleased that I was all but forced to read this seminal work of English literature.

For many people, there will always be certain classics that do not leap from their time-tested space on the shelf to say, "Read me! I'm still relevant and exciting and funny!" Indeed, many classics fail to do this with the larger population and as a result, lots of people become inordinately proud of themselves if they manage to read a book deemed "a classic" after graduating formal schooling. I'd like to think that I'm not quite that bad, but Moby Dick was, I admit, not high on my list of "books I ought to eventually read if I want to consider myself a well-rounded literature enthusiast." It's actually a possibility that I might not have ever even read Moby Dick if it wasn't for my significant other. This is his *favorite* book. He is one of those previously mentioned men who has a great appreciation for the sea and its vessels. He corrects me when I interchange the words "boat" and "ship." He insists on touring submarines or other large crafts when we happen to find ourselves in a city that features such tourist activities. I suppose that it was somewhat inevitable that Moby Dick would be his favorite book... and I also suppose that I may have misled him with my personal interests when I bought him the pop-up version of Moby Dick for Christmas one year. (I eagerly pulled tabs to open the white whale's mouth and, as he saw my enthusiasm, an idea crept into his head.) While I generally believe that those whom I choose to date have excellent taste in literature, whenever I submit to read their "favorite book," it rarely goes well. (I'm looking at you, Watership Down and Spoon River Anthology.) My current fellow and I, however, made a deal; we wouldn't simply read the other person's favorite book, each of us would read our own favorite *to* the other... aloud and in its entirety. He had actually read my favorite Austen during our own courtship (already he's a better person than I), so I moved on to select Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Why did I get two? Well, he chose Moby Dick and simply by virtue of page count, I managed to get through two Austens while we sailed on the high seas in pursuit of the white whale.

As far as Moby Dick goes, you know the story. A sailor going by a potentially fake name (famous first line alert: "Call me Ishmael.") narrates a voyage on the whaling ship known as the Pequod where a somewhat obsessed Captain Ahab seeks to kill the albino sperm whale called Moby Dick. Ishmael, a former schoolteacher who has never previously embarked on a sea voyage, travels to Nantucket and finds himself sharing lodgings with a harpooner named Queequeg (whose entire body is covered in tattoos and who hails from a cannibalistic tribe in the South Seas). The two become fast friends and decide to sign up on the Pequod together, despite some forebodings on land. The mates of the Pequod (named Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) are each interesting and very different characters. Starbuck is a Quaker and a thoughtful man, who often seems to be the only person on board with any sense when Ahab works everyone up about hunting down Moby Dick. He insists that it's lunacy to seek revenge against a dumb creature, particularly when their very lives are at stake, but it's unsurprising that Starbuck's objections fall on deaf ears. (Fun fact! The coffee chain Starbucks was named for this particular first mate and Battlestar Galactica fans will also recognize the name.) Stubb always has his pipe clenched in a smile and his constant talk (be it on deck or while lowered for whales) is reminiscent of the wise fools of Shakespeare. Finally, there's Flask, who is stout and reliable, but seems to believe that "the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered." There are also three harpooners on board the Pequod, aside from Queequeg; all of them are foreigners and non-Christians (aka savages, naturally, in this book), consisting of a Native American, an African, and a Persian. They don't speak much but each has significance on the ship. The rest of the crew members originate from across the globe to create an impressively international crew, though more focus is really made on those Nantucketers who always look towards home with eagerness.

Of course, there's still one character that everyone is a bit awed by/scared of, and that is the infamous Captain Ahab, who takes his sweet time in making an appearance on deck. In a previous encounter with Moby Dick, Ahab lost his leg and gained an unwavering series of revenge fantasies that motivate his every action. He also has a long scar on his face that is implied to run the length of his body, acquired after being struck by lightning. Ahab might simply seem a bit fanatical at the beginning of the journey, but his obsession quickly takes over the narrative as Ishmael, Queequeg and just about everyone else fade into the background. He is, perhaps, one of the greatest creations of American literature.

Melville (who went to sea in a whaling ship during the 1840s) was deeply committed to presenting a thorough account of what it was like to live and work on a whaling ship, so the reader will learn a great deal about the experience whether s/he likes it or not. The chapters on types of whales are often cited as being particularly vexing (though I found them to be quite funny) for the fact that modern science has left them riddled with inaccuracies. Quite honestly, I think this only makes them better because it forced me to go look up a few things so I could see if Melville's understanding had been proven wrong yet or if he was, indeed, spot on (though more often than not, the former was true). One has the sense while reading Moby Dick that Melville's writing style was to sit down and write furiously for hours or days at a time, then the next time that he picked up his pen, it would be with a totally different objective or outlook. As a result, you'll find those "educational" chapters every now and then, between scenes of doom-riddled mumblings or whale-dismembering. We even, randomly, have a few chapters that are written like a play with stage directions and soliloquies.

Some of the events that take place in Moby Dick were inspired by the real-life tragedy of the Essex, though frankly, Melville didn't focus on the truly horrific/fascinating parts of that story. The whale ship was charged by a large whale and sank in 1820, an event that was apparently quite rare. The men of the Essex, many of whom survived the ship's sinking as their boats were lowered and in pursuit of another whale, eventually landed on an island but quickly exhausted its resources. The rest of the story consists of illness, starvation, and cannibalism... none of which make it into Melville's masterpiece. Like Ahab, he focuses relentlessly on the whale... which evidently has its inspiration in life, too, with stories of an albino sperm whale called "Mocha Dick." All the general summaries of Moby Dick mention the Essex as a primary inspiration, but once I read about Mocha Dick, I feel like we've got our main culprit right there. A whale-induced shipwreck is one thing, an albino whale covered in futile and twisted harpoons is quite another.

Evidently, Moby Dick was not all that well-received upon its initial publication, though that might have had a lot to do with the fact that the publisher screwed up and forgot to print the epilogue, which is kind of important. It wasn't until years later that Melville's popularity grew and Moby Dick struck a chord with the disillusioned masses (particularly after WWI), who were finally able to appreciate a story of futile and tragic obsession. Since then, Moby Dick has been heralded as the greatest American novel and while I'm not honestly sure I can cheer that statement, I'm also not sure what else merits that title, so let's just put it in the top ten, shall we?

I could go into the symbolism behind Ahab and Moby Dick, the themes of obsession, religious fervor, prophesies, quixotic endeavors, fate, and so on, but I found more to love in the details of the novel and the characters themselves, like poor, doomed Starbuck and delightful Queequeg (with his creepy idol, Yojo). Pip, a cabin boy who loses his wits after being thrown from a boat, annoyed the heck out of me; when you have Ahab, then you know you're all stocked up on crazy so Pip seemed an excess. I was sorry to see Queequeg and Ishmael fade into the background as Ahab's revenge took over the narrative entirely, but obsession does kind of take over. Few people have probably taken more delight in the potentially homosexual undertones that frame the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael -- one can easily revert to the state of a twelve-year-old when reading how they share a bed together and, later, Ishmael starts blissfully squeezing the hands of his shipmates while kneading collected sperm oil. Thankfully, my reader also seemed to be amused by these points, though he'd loyally insist "they're not gay!" when I gave him significant looks after questionable passages. He may be right, but Melville did seem awfully devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne. I'm just sayin'.

Moby Dick is a truly magnificent novel and now I can clearly see why it has endured to hold such a revered place in the canon of American literature. Captain Ahab is the poster boy for doomed obsession and a magnificent character. I can hardly believe that there was a time when I thought I could probably skip reading this particular novel. I'm not sure I'll be diving directly into another work by Melville, but I certainly don't feel as daunted at the prospect as I did before. It's also rather nice to know that, for perhaps the very first time, I can wholeheartedly embrace a significant other's favorite book. If you're looking to read only one book about albino sperm whale revenge, then look no further, you've come to the right place. You will, however, have to get your own reader if you seek to repeat my experience... and if your reader doesn't do a Captain Ahab voice for you, then you're not getting the five star experience.

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