Moby Dick – “There she blows”

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.

Moby Dick by deviantART user EIMJ
Moby Dick by deviantART user EIMJ

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?

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2 thoughts on “Moby Dick – “There she blows”

  1. Moby Dick is indeed quite a book to take on. It has interested me due to its controversial status. I love these lines from TV Tropes: “Moby-Dick attempted to be a lot of things about whales, including a food blog, a bestiary, a travelogue, history and oh, a story with a plot.
    2nd comment – It goes beyond that. It also delves into geography, philosophy, religion, race relations, the nature of civilization versus savagery…
    3rd comment – There are some scholars who think Melville intended the book to be an encyclopedia of everything he knew.”

    There is in fact a long book published entitled “Why Read Moby Dick?”!
    http://www.amazon.com/Why-Read-Moby-Dick-Nathaniel-Philbrick/dp/0143123971

    Also Melville was actually a very popular author at the time. Back then it was his earlier books Typee and Oomoo that were praised by critics and made him a highly respected success. He then wrote Moby Dick hoping it would be his magnum opus only to have the critics savage it. It actually ruined his career to the point that when he died in 1891, he was forgotten by most of the world. It was only in the years to come that his works were re-discovered by scholars and Moby Dick became the classic Melville had hoped it to be.

    And on a lighter note, when I was very young I loved the scene in the film Matilda where Matilda’s father tears up the copy of Moby Dick she borrowed from the library (based on the title, but I didn’t get that, of course, it was just funny a father would do something so inappropriate).

    1. TV Tropes is most certainly accurate. He really put in all manner of things.

      I wouldn’t say Melville was all that popular, he didn’t sell all that many books. He was seen as mediocre author at the start, not a great author but good enough, but as you said after Moby Dick, things went downhill.

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