Call me Ishmael. And so goes the famous
opening of this even more famous book first published in 1851 Considered by many to be the first great
American classic novel, it was a failure in Melville's lifetime. And no wonder! It has got to be one of the strangest, most bizarre books I have ever read. Its
style is indefinable, a mix of narratives, told in the first person by the sailor Ishmael. It tells the story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for
revenge against the Great White Whale, Moby-Dick, who bit off his leg at the knee and destroyed his ship. But, had Melville written the book just to tell
that story, it would have been a quite short novel rather than the 135-chapter one it is.
Amidst the tale is interwoven just about everything you want to know about whales, (and stuff you'd rather not know, too) according to what was known at the time. It certainly has prompted me to do additional research on these fascinating mammals (which Melville believed were fish, even though there was evidence at the time to consider them mammals). This includes the butchering of whales, which of course I find absolutely repugnant and reprehensible. Fortunately now, they are a protected species. Melville, it seems, believed they were conniving to the point of being perhaps evil, especially Moby-Dick. And modern knowledge of whales does consider them able to plan and reason—a very smart group of animals, of which also belong dolphins and porpoises. As far as them being "evil" because they attacked whale fishers? If someone was harpooning you to death, wouldn't you attempt to defend yourself? And if you happened to be fifty-plus foot long, you just might upset a few ships. We know now of course, that whales are curious animals, and when left alone are quite harmless. They sing beautiful songs and attempt to communicate with people, and can also be trained. They are magnificent animals! The thought of killing them is beyond my comprehension.
Ok, now that I've got that off my chest, let's continue with the book. All the non-fictional material aside, the fictional parts are still very bizarre. The narrative is a strange mix of traditional story-telling, alternating with poetry, songs, and even resembling the stage. There is lots and lots and lots of Bible material, and fundamental religious views (the first mate, Starbuck, is a Quaker), with the dialogue written in traditional thee and thou form, juxtaposed with superstition and Paganism. However, the novel on the whole is eclectic, as is typical with Melville. The characters include a Polynesian cannibal, an American Indian, a black African and an African-American boy. Ahab is Eastern, along with his Indian guide, the Parsee Fedallah, whom Ahab has smuggled on board. There is a mix of goodness, evil, and indifference. This novel is a bit of everything, really. In fact, it took me a while to realize that a very good portion of it is tongue-in-cheek humor. I have not read anything about this story that admits to the humorous aspect, but it is there, in full bloom. The book is a mockery, an allegory, a scientific (sort of) treatise, an adventure, and of course, a downright tragedy, yet the tragic part seems so much less, surrounded by all the other material. No wonder it wasn't successful in Melville's time; nobody probably understood it! Believe me, it is a challenge.
And while Melville glorifies the whaling industry in his story, he was certainly not a fan. During the period of his life before he became an established author, he was forced to make a living otherwise, and took advantage of an opportunity to work on a whaling ship. In fact, he hated it so much that he deserted, and the result brought forth his two earlier novels, Typee and Omoo.
And one last general comment: I have read so many seafaring novels, not necessarily on purpose, but because it was such an important subject of classic authors. Most of them describe horrific conditions about the ships; drunkenness, near starvation, cruelty and poverty. Not so here, in fact, apparently, the whole whaling industry had a better reputation in general. The ship was clean and neat, well organized, and all were well fed. And except for Ahab and his Indian cohorts, whom everyone dislikes, fears or avoids, it seems the rest of the crew got along quite well, their needs provided for, and they were reasonably comfortable, under the circumstances.
The book begins with an introduction that first presents the word "whale" in various languages, followed by several pages of "Extracts" in which passages from numerous sources are quoted, having to do with the whale. These range from the Bible, to Shakespeare, epic poetry, fiction, historical, newspapers, and even songs; 80 in all. Then Ishmael begins his story on Manhattan Island, finding himself down and out, and feeling an itching for the sea. He sets off for New Bedford, Massachusetts. and ends up at the Spouter Inn where he learns if he is to stay there, he must share a bed with a cannibal named Queequeg, a heavily tattooed Polynesian, a harpooner from the fictional island of Rokovoko, where his father is king. At the moment, he is out selling shrunken heads. There is a bit of discomfort when Queequeg arrives back at the inn to find someone in his bed, but as it turns out, after smoking Queequeg's tomahawk pipe together, he and Ishmael become close friends. (OK, I did say it was a strange story.)
The next day, they attend a service at the Whaleman's Chapel, and what book of the Bible should Father Mapple choose to speak on but the story of Jonah! Of course. (Ishmael is Presbyterian by the way.) On Monday, they take a boat to Nantucket Island, famous for its whaling industry at the time, and Queequeg, after consulting his wooden idol Yojo, informs Ishmael that he must choose the whaling ship upon which they will sail. He chooses, for some reason, the Pequod, without knowing the circumstances attached to it. Owned by Quakers, Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, it seems a good enough ship, but after he signs up himself and Queequeg, a half-crazed old man named Elijah begins following them uttering prophesies in gibberish. The evening before sailing, Ishmael observes shadowy figures boarding the ship.
It isn't until they are out to sea that Captain Ahab makes his appearance. He walks on a leg that from the knee down is fashioned out of the bone of a whale. And it is soon after that the crew is informed of the real purpose of the voyage, from Ahab's point of view: to kill the Great White Whale Moby Dick, who has crippled him. The three harpooners (an important position in a whaling ship) couldn't care less. They include Queequeg, Tashtego, an American Indian, and Daggoo, a black African, now a resident of Nantucket. Second mate Stubb is a happy-go-lucky man, and third mate Flask is a bit of a wimp, but it is first mate Starbuck, a strict Quaker of very high morals who becomes the antagonist of Ahab and throughout the story urges him to relinquish his obsession of revenge, which has fermented into evil within Ahab's soul. As the story progresses, more and more omens present themselves as to the ultimate fate of the Pequod. Starbuck's pleading does no good, and at one point Ahab threatens to kill him, and later, Starbuck meditates upon the same end for Ahab. But ultimately Ahab will not be dissuaded and proceeds to carry out his insanity, irregardless of the fate of his ship and crew.
The novel consists of 135 chapters, but until the last 30 or so, we really begin to lose track of the voyagers because of all the other diversions upon which Melville dwells. He discusses the color white and our perceptions of it, (Moby-Dick is a rare albino Sperm Whale), along with the parts of a whale and the differences between whale species, and an analysis of a whale's dimensions and skeleton. He talks about the spout and interesting breathing facts, then goes to the other end and discusses the tail.
The whale industry was primarily interested in Sperm Whales, so named from the spermaceti found in their huge heads, which form one-third of their length. The waxy substance was a source for whale oil, which burned the ships' lamps and was used for candles and other items. The Sperm Whale was also a source for the expensive substance called Ambergris, used in the perfume industry, It was found in the whale's, eh, intestines. . . . Eew.
The right whales' mouths contain whalebone, or baleen, like rows of bristles, sieves, or Venetian blinds which filter their food, since they have no teeth. They were used for crinoline petticoats, corsets, and umbrellas, among other items.
All this really sickens me, as I do not eat or use products of slaughtered animals. In fact, the research I did connected with this story also sickened me, because much of it was about beached whales, dead whales, and whales found with stomachs full of trash. I often truly hate people.
But back to Melville. We also hear other tales woven into the story, along with the Pequod's meeting of other vessels and their stories. And speaking of ambergris, mentioned above, probably one of the most humorous conversations in the whole story takes place in the chapter called "The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud," in which Stubb swindles a rotten whale carcass from them because he knows it contains the rare substance. Melville discusses famous artworks of whales, of which he strongly disputes their accuracy, and other instances of whales in arts and crafts.
And last but not least, Wikipedia has an extensive article about Moby-Dick including the source for his name which was based on a real whale named Mocha Dick, who lived near Mocha Island off the coast of Chile.
It's all about whales, and by the time you finish reading, you will know WAY more about them than you ever intended.
Do I recommend reading it? Well, no, but neither do I recommend not reading it. It is a challenge and takes some time, so it requires a sort of commitment. But having made that, you will certainly be rewarded on many levels, provided you can tolerate the episodes of animal cruelty.
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