Published in 1851, Moby Dick tells the tale of a man named Ishmael, and his adventures on the Pequod, a whaling ship teeming with detailed characters. The captain of the ship, Captain Ahab, is obsessed with hunting Moby Dick, the ‘white whale’, which had bitten off his leg on a previous voyage. The novel deals with themes of obsession, nature, solitude and religion. Moby Dick has rightly become a sturdy pillar of the American literary canon. (*- that I’ve read)
Herman Melville, born in 1819, wrote Moby Dick following five years at sea, three of which he spent whaling. He died forty years after having published Moby Dick in 1891, leaving four children. He was born and raised in New York City. Eager to find work, he set out on the St Lawrence, a merchant ship, and almost immediately fell in love will the sea.
While he had a wife, Elizabeth Knapp Shaw, Melville had eyes for Nathaniel Hawthorne, another writer (of Scarlet Letter fame). In one letter, Melville writes:
‘you have sunk your northern roots into my southern soul’.
The novel starts with one of the most notable opening sentences in literary history, ‘Call me Ishmael’.
(From the editor: the meaning of this stark opening is hotly debated. In the bible, Ishmael is the son Abraham and Hagar, a slave woman. Ismael was banished to roam the wilderness and perish. This his life was spared by the miraculous appearance of a well. Ishmael is generally regarded to be less important than his half brother Isaac – although both have the rare claim of having started two of the major world religions. I read this opening as a dismissal of identity; if you must give me an identity, it may as well be Ishmael for the tale I have to relay is far greater than my identity. Back to Boris…)
Ishmael recounts wandering the barren wastes of the seas (just as Ishmael wandered the wilderness), and the fatal journey of the Pequod, of which he is the last survivor.
Before setting off to get down and kill some whales, Ishmael spends a few nights with Queequeg, a tattooed man from the fictional island of Rokovoko, who joins Ishmael on the Pequod’s voyage, and in his bed. Removed from the first publication in London for non-Christian values, Ishmael and Queequeg embrace each other on a cold night and declare themselves ‘married’. Ishmael later describes his voyage as their ‘honeymoon’. Rather unusually, Queequeg fades in importance throughout the book, until he becomes ill and declares that he will die imminently. However, after sleeping in a coffin for a couple nights, he’s right as rain.
Unfortunately, shortly after Queequeg recovers from his illness, he is killed, along with most of the crew, when the Pequod is ‘stove in’ by Moby Dick and sunk.
In a frenzy of ‘monomaniacal’ obsession, Captain Ahab orders the remainder of the crew to set after the whale. They pursue him for three days, until Ahab harpoons him, getting tangled in the line and he promptly dies.
While the plot of the novel is relatively simple, Ishmael’s intense philosophical musings, combined with Melville’s extensive knowledge of whale biology, fill out the meat of the book. (If you like meat, check out this blog on meal deals)
Why should read Moby Dick
While I have just revealed most of the plot in the passage above, I’m sure you, a most learned reader, already know the outline of the novel. However, Melville’s writing is an adventure of itself.
In one passage, he discusses the whiteness of Moby Dick and how that ‘appalls’ him. This heavily figurative and poetic passage was one of the many delights of reading the novel, Melville constructs a novel argument and expands it with flair.
In addition, Melville’s whole chapters describing the process of whaling, the categorisation of whale species or the dismemberment of a whale carcass offer an insight into the extinct brutality and martial nature of 19th-century whaling. Melville uses Ishmael’s perspective, a novice in whaling, to parallel with the reader; both Ishmael and the reader are learning together.
Why you shouldn’t read Moby Dick
I’m going to be honest; this book is not for the faint hearted. At times, it can be a real slog to get through. At over 206,000 words, this novel is no light read.
The lengthy descriptions of naval tradition and the anatomy of a sperm whale head may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I certainly didn’t enjoy Father Mapple’s sermon, which managed to span multiple chapters and didn’t really amount to anything at all.
Despite the (extreme) boredom many readers will experience at certain parts of the book, it truly is one of the best books I have read. It offers many insights into religion, views on race and my personal favourite, marine biology.
For those of you too busy or not brave enough to tackle this tome, I would recommend In The Heart Of The Sea (2005), which tells the story of the Essex, the sunken ship and subsequent struggle of the survivors which inspired Moby Dick.
Thank you so much for reading, I’ve been Boris!