Moby Dick, a whale of a book

Illustration by Rockwell Kent
Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Continuing my summer ocean theme, I’d like to discuss one of the great novels of the sea, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was never forced to read the book in school, and probably wouldn’t have liked it if I did. This is not a book that one can step into lightly or reluctantly, you have to dive in head first and grapple with it, like the great sea creatures it describes. It was only later that I discovered the quirky qualities of this epic tome.

The book is more famous today for its reputation and symbolism than for the actual text, which is too bad. The writing is unlike any other book I’ve read, rambling and unfocused, yet sharp and perceptive. Everyone knows the storyline, of the manic Captain Ahab who hunts the world over for Moby Dick, the white whale who took off his leg; it’s a gripping allegory with enough symbolism for a dozen dissertations.

But the tragedy of Captain Ahab is, to use another nautical metaphor, just the tip of the iceberg. The book goes far beyond its characters and events to delve into matters of philosophy, culture, science, religion, human nature — in short, it’s a book about everything. I’m sure the kitchen sink is in there too.

book coverI think this is why movie versions can never do the book justice, for the actual scenes in the book are merely hooks for the author to hang his litany of metaphors and observations about life, the real subject of Moby Dick.

As far as the nautical theme of the book, the author spends a great number of pages contemplating whales in excruciating detail, right down to their anatomy and bone structure. There is also detailed description of how the crew hunts, kills, and dismantles a whale on board the ship, scenes that have nothing to do with Ahab or the storyline at all. So then we might ask, why are they in the book? Would this have been a better novel if all of that had been trimmed down, leaving a compact 400-page adventure story?

If this were simply a tale about revenge or a sailor’s journey, something along the lines of Stevenson, then certainly it could have used a good editor. But this is a book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all the minute details and melodramatic ponderings contribute mysteriously to its power. Even as it expresses some 19th Century notions that we might find outdated, the scope of its insight far outweighs its datedness.

One of the ironies of the book is that even as the author describes the capture and slaughter of whales, often portraying them as monsters, he also expresses admiration and respect for them, as he does for everything he writes about. Here is a brief excerpt, concluding one of the many chapters describing the power and majesty of whales:

“Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam in the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”

One of Melville’s famous quotes is, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” This weighty book might fail a modern writing class, but it certainly is original and amazing.

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3 thoughts on “Moby Dick, a whale of a book

  1. I was forced to read Moby Dick in school and hated it, probably only because I was seventeen. What teenager wants to read Moby Dick? Now I think maybe I should give it another shot.

  2. Wow, beautiful post about Moby Dick. It makes me want to dive in again and succeed at finishing the story. I tried to read it by choice when I was a teen and couldn’t grasp everything it gives.

    You should stop by the Boston, Museum of Science, they have a Sperm Whale skeleton on display from New Zealand. It’s a great exhibit. Maybe you already have that planned as your next post involving oceans?

  3. Thanks for the comments! It’s not an easy book to get through, it’s like climbing a mountain – often tedious and tiring, but also exhilarating. Works well as an audiobook.

    The Museum of Science exhibit looks great, I hope to get there soon!

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