The classic whaling novel (I mean how many whaling novels can you name?). It can be seen as a bit of a behemoth itself due to its rambling nature and reasonable density. And it really is a challenge to read it, because it takes a considerable length of time, and it’s not the easiest thing to read. Having said that, I didn’t find it too bad, I found it reasonably interesting and understandable (with the help of footnotes). I’m really glad I read it, and for once I didn’t find a classic detestable or boring! There are a whole lot of interesting themes explored in the book, and while seemingly not that much happens (like summary: a guy called Ishmael goes on a whaling boat with a maniacal captain in search of Moby Dick, a white sperm whale) it’s full of detail and asides. It is consistently regarded as one of the classics, and I certainly agree that it’s a pretty good book. I do wonder if there are better whaling books out there, but the whaling aspect here is only part of the story. This is Herman Melville’s ‘signature novel’, he has 11 novels in total, but this is really the only one which is a classic. But at the time, his works weren’t all that successful. He himself was actually a whaler, so some of this is perhaps autobiographical, which surely explains the detail.
I actually really preferred the first section before boarding the boat, just something about that section was more interesting. I guess perhaps it was because Ishmael himself was really narrating it as first person, instead of the more detached first person narration, the third person narration, and the more dramatic ‘script’ chapters later on in the book. Because some of the later chapters felt textbook like, and a bit stale compared with the earlier ones. Not saying that all the later sections were boring, but just the general feeling for me was that this first section was much more interesting and enjoyable. Though I did really find the whaling section fascinating. Learning about how they went about whaling, and the effort that was put in was great. Though the passages where they were describing harpooning the whales was a little unsettling. But I certainly learnt a lot about whaling which was nice, and a lot about whales!
And I think also the developing relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg was really interesting to read about as well. I would think that it was quite scandalous back in the day to imagine two men who slept in the same bed, and said they loved each other and were like a married couple! But their relationship was quite interesting, the trepidation of Ishmael imagining spending a night with a harpooner, and Queequeg’s strange rituals. The two of them create a very strong bond, and yet once on the boat, there really isn’t much of this shown.
And I guess it comes down to the fact that Ishmael isn’t really the main character for most of the book, it is Ahab, the captain of the whaling vessel, the Pequod. It is his obsession with Moby Dick which really drives the narrative. Sure Ishmael is there, and the story ends with him (in a very storytelling fashion), but once on the boat, he isn’t the main focus. After all we get a lot of events and dialogue that Ishmael could never have been privy to because he wasn’t anywhere near it all (hence the 3rd person narration). And at some points it’s arguable that perhaps it is no Ishmael narrating but Herman himself. But Ahab’s character is certainly central. The frenzied obsession is definitely a lesson to us all about who unhealthy they can be.
It was also an unusual (for the time) book in that it was pretty multi-cultural, despite of course being derogatory towards the Queequeg’s cannibalistic origins, it has a number of characters from different backgrounds, who aren’t being used as slaves. Usually it’s because they are the harpooners, so they have a position of power in the boat, because without them the voyage is fruitless.
So what did you think of the book? Were you able to complete it? Have you read another whaling book or any of Melville’s others?