Review of Moby-Dick

moby-dick-coverI 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!

Favorite Quotes

“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.”

_ _ _

I wrote three other reflections about Moby-Dick here, here, and here.

Moby-Dick Read-Along: The Power of the Color White

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4I am a bit behind in Moby-Dick, but I am really enjoying the book. Because this is a very dense work, I don’t want to race through it. There are so many beautiful and insightful passages. In a series of passages, Ishmael reflects on the color white. He wonders why the white whale incites so much fear in sailors. More generally, he wonders why the color white makes people feel so uncomfortable. Below is one such passage:

“Is it that by [white’s] indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of the annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge  – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt.” 

Pinwheel Galaxy. Image: European Space Agency & NASA

Pinwheel Galaxy. NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute, 2006.

The best way to analyze this passage is to break it up. I am convinced that the major point Ishmael is making here is that the color white makes people feel uncomfortable because it represents the truth about the world and about themselves. Because it is the base of all color and also “the visible absence of color”, white represents divinity and infinity. Infinity, like the Milky Way galaxy, is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. I know that when I see pictures of space from the Hubble Space Telescope, I feel uncomfortable. I realize how infinitely small I am. I realize that I am not at the center of the universe.

I don’t exactly understand what Melville means by the “colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink”. He is certainly juxtaposing opposites to make a point about the mysterious power of the color white. White is the essence of everything but it is also emptiness, annihilation. Color is just a facade. The “wretched infidel” experiences discomfort before a white landscape because it gives him a sense of uncertainty. Maybe the “wretched infidel” here refers more particularly to Captain Ahab who is hard-bent on killing Moby-Dick. His hatred of the white whale consumes him. The whale haunts him. I think Ishmael is suggesting that Ahab hates the whale because it reminds him of his mortality. By dismembering Ahab, Moby-Dick challenged Ahab’s feeling of superiority. Ahab must destroy the whale to win back his dignity.

I feel, though, that there is something missing in my interpretation. The harpoonists are all men of color. So, maybe Ishmael is making some sort of racial commentary here. This may be a bit far-fetched, but it is possible that Ishmael thinks that the reason for racial prejudices lies in the belief that people of color are in some way tainted.

What do you all think? If you are currently reading Moby-Dick, what is your interpretation of the passages on the color white?

Moby-Dick Read-Along: Chapters 21-38

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4This is week II of the Moby-Dick read-along hosted by Roof Beam Reader. We are now getting to the notoriously heavy/boring parts of the novel. However, I didn’t mind much the chapters on the different kinds of whales and the chapters that praise whaling. Ishamael’s descriptions of the whales may not be accurate, but I didn’t think those pages were meaningless.

I have wanted to be an entomologist since I was nine or ten years old. During most of my high school years, I remember feeling disappointed that invertebrates were hardly ever mentioned in my biology classes. Finally, the summer before my senior year, I got the opportunity to do an internship at the local museum of natural history. My project? Identifying spider wasps down to the species level. That summer, I spent hours peering through a microscope at the wing venation and abdominal setae of wasps, with only a hundred year old guide to help me. You read that right – a hundred year old guide! The pages were yellow and not held together by much.

I mention this experience by way of explaining why I valued the Moby-Dick chapters on cetology. I have never studied whales; I get seasick like no one I know. But, taxonomy is no easy task. Ishamael mentions the challenges taxonomists face in studying whales. The same is true for any other organism. In Melville’s time, the only way scientists could build cladograms was by studying the morphological similarities and differences between species. However, as Ishmael argues in the chapters on cetology, classification based on morphology alone is not always accurate.

“Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.” 

My time at the museum and the evolutionary biology courses I took later in college gave me a great appreciation for the field of taxonomy, although this is not what I will be studying in graduate school. Ishmael is not a scientist. He admits to not understanding whale speciation like the naturalists he cites. Yet, I found the cetology passages to be valuable because of Ishmael’s commentary on taxonomy. I also learned a lot about the products that were produced from the different whales at a time when whaling was legal.

Enough about cetology. On to the other chapters of the reading.

Ahab is quite a memorable character. With a giant scar on his face and a peg leg, who can forget him. He is not interested in killing any whale. He wants to kill Moby-Dick, the white whale that dismembered him. Starbuck, the chief mate, may be ethically opposed to the killing of Moby-Dick, but Ahab is the captain. Like the whale he wants to destroy, Ahab is larger than life itself.

Ishmael gives the reader a very striking description of the three mates having dinner with the captain in his cabin.

“Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his war-like but still deferential cubs. In his own proper turn, each officer waited to be served. They were was little children before Ahab; and yet, in Ahab, there seemed not to lurk the smallest social arrogance. With one mind, their intent eyes all fastened upon the old man’s knife, as he carved the chief dish before him. I do not suppose that for the world they would have profaned that moment with the slightest observation, even upon so neutral a topic as the weather.”

The shipmates do not need to be told how to behave before their captain. They know that he is not a force to be reckoned with. He is respected (except maybe by the second mate, Stubb).

I could go on and on about the many observations I made in this week’s reading, but I will stop here. I am welcoming Melville’s digressions with open arms.

Moby-Dick Read-Along: Chapters 1-20

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4I just finished reading the chapters for the first part of the read-along, so while they are fresh in my mind, I will put down in words the parts of the reading that stood out to me.

The narrator, Ishmael, suddenly has the urge to become a harpoonist. At a Nantucket inn, he meets a Polynesian man named Queequeg. Ishamel is surprised by the affable character of this “pagan”. His religion and diet are quite different from Ishamael’s Presbyterian upbringing; yet, Queequeg is kind and respectful toward others. Ishmael and Queequeg soon become friends.

Like Roof Beam Reader, I too was struck by the biblical imagery in the story. Ishmael visits a church in Nantucket and listens to a sermon on the story of Jonah. I really enjoyed the sermon. The minister’s descriptions of Jonah and his adventures are such that sailors and their families (the members of his congregation) can relate to the biblical character.

I give you an extract from the sermon. [Jonah has run away from God and has climbed aboard a sailing vessel]: “So Jonah’s Captain prepares to test the length of Jonah’s purse, ere he judges him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it’s assented to. Then the Captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive; but at the same time resolves to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the Captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, anyway, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage. ‘Point out my state-room, Sir,’ says Jonah now, ‘I’m travel-weary; I need sleep.” “Thou look’st like it,’ says the Captain, ‘there’s thy room.’ Jonah enters, and would lock the door, but the lock contains no key. Hearing him foolishly fumbling there, the Captain laughs lowly to himself, and mutters something about the door of convicts’ cells being never allowed to be locked within.” 

The interaction between Jonah and the Captain is very realistically painted. This is such a powerful retelling of a story everyone knows. It is powerful mostly because the minister’s audience can really relate to the characters. They too are sailors.

The characters’ names are also very interesting. In Nantucket where most people are Quakers, people have biblical names. So, what is the significance of the sailors’ names in Moby-Dick? Captain Peleg tells Ishmael that Captain Ahab is nothing like his biblical namesake. Still, it may be valuable to know the biblical origins of the characters’ names. In the Bible, Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar. He was not chosen by God to be a patriarch of Israel but became a father to the nomadic people. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is a wanderer. He is not content to stay in one place, but is constantly looking for new adventures on the high seas. When I’m reading, I can’t help but think of The Deadliest Catch.

Peleg is a character whose namesake I have difficulty identifying. According to Wikipedia, Peleg was a father of the Hebrew people but a more ancient one than Abraham. He is not well-described in the Bible, so his personality is somewhat of a mystery.

Captain Bildad’s namesake was Job’s friend Bildad who blamed Job’s sins for his suffering. In Moby-Dick, Captain Bildad is a harsh, religious person. Ishmael points out that Bildad is Quaker and therefore opposed to human violence; yet, he is also greedy and has no problem with whaling. What with Melville’s story-telling, I am sure I will learn much more about Bildad’s character in the chapters to come.

Elijah is a mysterious old sailor Ishmael meets on the loading dock. He makes a bunch of prophetic statements that Ishamel either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand. The biblical character was a prophet too, so Moby-Dick character closely matches that of his namesake.

We haven’t met Captain Ahab yet. Elijah and Captain Peleg disagree about Ahab’s character. The biblical Ahab was a king of Judah and the husband of the notorious Jezebel. He received many upsetting prophesies from Elijah. Needless to say, Elijah and Ahab were not friends.

That’s all for now. I am really enjoying the book so far. I am not bored yet by Ishmael’s tangents and descriptions.

Favorite Passage

“The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Biblical language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”