jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Moby Dick

I’ve been slowly working through my list of books, and Saturday I finally knocked another one off the list, Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s whaling epic took me a while. Inside those 663 pages, there’s probably a good 300 page book, as it is, Moby Dick covers both the human condition and the intricacies of butchering a whale in the middle of the ocean.

I found brief flashes of masterful prose in the book, some familiar quotes from Star Trek movies, and, surprisingly, I found bits of humor towards the start of the book. When Ishmael and Queequeg meet, Ishmael is already in bed when Queequeg comes into the room, undresses and crawls into bed next to him. Ishmael is scared stiff of the strange foreigner, and tries to stay quiet until Queequeg does something to frighten him, Ishmael jumps, and Queequeg jumps, and the entire scene reads like a comedy.

The comedy doesn’t last long though. Once onboard the Pequod the book turns to symbolism, quite a lot of it frankly over my head. I understand the main points. Captain Ahab, driven mad with desire for revenge against the whale that took his leg, sacrifices everything he has and everyone he knows in his monomaniacal pursuit of a single whale in the great, wide ocean.

He does finally find his whale, but between the time that they set sail and the time they finally catch up to the whale, there is a long period of general whaling. In this, we get to find out about the differences between the Right Whale and the Sperm Whale, and why the Sperm Whale is the most fearsome beast in the ocean, and how to kill one when you find it. Not only that, but how to decapitate the whale once killed, strip the blubber from its hide, and stock up the spermaceti for transport. All of this I could have done without.

What I did find interesting was the relationship between Ahab and his first mate, Starbuck. By the end of the book Starbuck wants desperately to return to Nantucket, and call off the hunt for the whale. Ahab, driven solely and completely by his need to kill the white whale refuses. Starbuck considers killing the captain, sneaks into his cabin with his gun and contemplates murder, but he can’t do it. Starbuck can’t allow himself to take another mans life, even if it would have meant saving the lives of everyone else on the ship.

Ahab’s obsession destroys him, and his entire crew, except the one who survived to tell the tale. In the end, Ahab knew he was beat, but he refused to give up.

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

The purity of Ahab’s obsession is best captured in this famous quote:

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Ahab felt that all wrong, all evil, all torment for all of history was the fault of Moby Dick. Crazy, right?

That’s one of the issues I have with the book though. Melville kept telling us how mad Ahab was, but for most of the book he just seemed like a jerk. Obsessive, yes, but crazy? It would have been more interesting to see more of the inner workings of Ahabs mind in the earlier and middling parts of the book than at the end.

I’m glad to have read the book, but I’m not sure I’ll ever read it again. It took months for me to get through, I just kept losing interest. Like McNulty likes to say, there’s probably a fantastic 300 page book inside the 660 pages of Moby Dick.

reading culture