I read Moby-Dick for a read-along hosted by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader.
What was it about?
Moby-Dick; or, the White Whale by Herman Melville opens with one of the most famous lines in all of literature: “Call me Ishmael.” The narrator, tired of ordinary life and hungry for adventure, enlists to be a sailor on The Pequod. Although he has been on many sea-adventures, Ishmael is going on a whaling expedition for the very first time. At a seaside inn in Nantucket, he meets and befriends a Polynesian man named Queequeg who later becomes one of the harpooners on the ship. Finally, after convincing the owners of The Pequod that he has the necessary experience to be a sailor on their ship, Ishmael climbs aboard. But what Ishmael does not know at the start of the journey is that he is not about to embark on a normal whaling expedition. While the three mates (Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) catch multiple sperm whales along the way, Captain Ahab is interested in killing only one whale – an albino named Moby-Dick. Ahab was dismembered by this sperm whale on one of his previous expeditions and is now consumed with a maniacal desire to destroy this elusive but notorious animal. The sailors may be after spermaceti, but Captain Ahab has no other goal than the satisfaction of his Ego. Throughout his journey, Ishmael introduces the reader to Nantucket, 19th century whaling, and the enigmatic and majestic qualities of the sperm whale.
What did I think of it?
Ishmael is a nerd. He is obsessed with learning about whales and the whaling industry, and he can’t wait to tell the reader about what he has learned. The rumors are true. There are hundreds of pages dedicated to cetology (the study of whales and dolphins). But what I bet no one has told you yet is that those are the best chapters in the book. Moby-Dick is more than a novel about a whale hunt. There is not a work that brings together science and philosophy as elegantly and as powerfully as Moby-Dick. The cetology chapters are laden with metaphor. In these chapters, Ishmael has a two-part goal: to give the reader a greater appreciation for whales and to explore the character of Captain Ahab. Ishmael is like a small child in a candy store. He is hungry to know and understand. Ahab is as mysterious as the creature he is hunting, and Ishmael wants to decode them both. The cetology/whaling chapters also appealed to me because I am studying to be an entomologist. It was refreshing to meet a character equally excited to learn about the world. Although the novel sometimes reads like an encyclopedia, the facts about whales are often used as metaphors to explore and critique human behavior. Here is an example:
“How wonderful is it then – except after explanation – that this great monster [the sperm whale], to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. […] Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”
Most of the characters in Moby-Dick are also quite memorable. Starbuck is the greatest sailor in the novel. He is not only ethical and honest, but he also respects life and death. Captain Ahab, on the other hand, is an egotistical person. He doesn’t allow anything or anybody to come between him and his goal. Ahab is willing to sacrifice his wife, child, and ship to prove to himself that he is the most powerful person in the world. But Ishmael does not think Ahab is essentially different from other men. We all, to one degree or another, lust after fame and self-affirmation.
Moby-Dick is not an easy work. There were admittedly a few chapters that I didn’t understand. But throughout the majority of the book, I experienced for the first time a feeling of awe and admiration toward whales. Even today, whales are hardly understood by scientists. Immediately after finishing the novel, I picked up two creative non-fiction works by Nathaniel Philbrick about Nantucket and the history of whaling: Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 and Into the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. If you are hesitant to dive into Moby-Dick without a prior knowledge of the topics discussed in the book, you might want to check out these non-fiction works. But that is by no means necessary.
Reading Moby-Dick was an extraordinary experience. I had never read such smooth, elegant writing in my entire life. I also enjoyed the humor interspersed throughout the text. In my not so humble opinion, everybody should read Moby-Dick at least once in their life. It is truly epic!
“Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic.”
[Starbuck to Captain Ahab]: “[L]et Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”
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I wrote three other reflections about Moby-Dick here, here, and here.