Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851
I did it! I read Moby Dick. It took me four attempts. On the first three I only made it about four chapters in; that’s how painfully boring this book is. Stop freaking out, Melville enthusiasts. I promise to say some nice things about the book before I’m done.
Moby Dick is often called “one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.” I think it’s time for this book to get a more honest blurb. Really, only about 20% of the words in this novel are dedicated to the adventure of searching for the white whale, and that’s a generous estimate. An appropriate blurb for the other 80% of the book is “every single thought Herman Melville ever had about sperm whales.” Seriously, it’s like Herman Melville had a bad break up with sperm whales and wrote down all his obsessive, post-breakup thoughts. 600 pages of “sperm whales are so beautiful and so evil.”
Some people really love Moby Dick. At least that’s what they tell me. I have a hard time believing it though. You would have to be passionately interested in 19th century whaling to have a good time while reading this novel. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the body of the sperm whale. There are chapters dedicated to every part of the boat used to hunt the sperm whale. I would rate my interest in 19th century whaling at about a 16 out of 100. I am interested in whales and I would like to know more about their biology, but not from Ishmael, who is an idiot. One of the first things he says about the sperm whale is that it’s definitely a fish. He argues against Karl Linnaeus’ assertion that whales are mammals. Karl Linnaeus was a prominent biologist whose work is arguably just as important to contemporary biology as that of Charles Darwin. I would be interested in reading Linnaeus’ thoughts on whale anatomy, but I don’t care even a little about Ishmael’s. Melville dedicates more words to this topic than any other in Moby Dick, which leaves me wondering why on earth anyone likes this book. I’ll do my best to guess.
Buried deep in Ishmael’s ramblings lie some little gems of literary merit. I will enumerate them for you:
- The bromance between Ishmael and Queequeg. The unlikely friendship between the supposedly savage Pacific Island cannibal and the New England sailor is very endearing. There are actually three noble savages onboard the Pequod: Tashtego, a tall, sexy Native American, Dagoo, a brawny, lionine African, and tattooed Queequeg. They are all spoken of with admiration. However, Queequeg is the only one of the three with whom Ishmael forms a genuine friendship. Tashtego and Dagoo are admired for their physical form and whaling skill. They don’t break out of the noble savage thought cage.
- The adventure parts are scary and exciting. . .and repulsive. So much whale gore spurting into the ocean, making the waves red and foamy. Yuck.
- Poor, creepy, haunted Pip.
- Melville can be silly. There are some bits of hilarity to be found if you’re patient enough to wade through all the whale carcasses to find them. For example, at one point the oil, or sperm, from a slaughtered whale has crystalized and the crew has to manually squish it back to its liquid form. Ishmael describes that process thusly:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my collaborators’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much to say,–Oh, my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever!
I mean, that’s pretty great. Maybe worth reading all of Moby Dick for. Maybe.
The last thing we need to talk about is Ahab. What a weirdo. I never managed to regard him with the filial loyalty and respect that his crew feels for him. They describe him as “noble” a number of times. Perhaps he was once, but his mind has been twisted by the loneliness or violence of whaling or something. Now he’s just a weirdo. All his dramatic speeches seem really silly to me. Get a grip, dude; you’re seeking revenge for an insult perpetrated by a whale. A whale. It’s not your enemy; it’s just an animal, you psycho. Chill out. Don’t ruin the lives of your entire crew. Oops, too late, you got everyone killed. . .because you couldn’t forgive a whale. That sucks. Ahab sucks.
There are some dramatic moments in this adventure story, but the whole thing seems ludicrous to me.
You might like Moby Dick if
- you just can’t get enough inaccurate Victorian science.
- you just can’t get enough information about whaling in the 1840s.
- you are reading a severely abridged version.
You might not like Moby Dick if:
- the complicated and sometimes loathsome racial relations will upset you.
- the gory details of hunting and butchering whales will upset you.
- you are not a whaling enthusiast.
Final thoughts: Look, if you want to read Moby Dick, best of luck to you. I recommend skipping most of the chapters.