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Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

March 3, 2015

MobyDickTonyMillionaireCoverPoster“Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?”

Decades before the slaughter of whales on a massive scale, brave men all across the watery globe ventured out into the perilous oceans for years at a time with little technology. Their purpose was to hunt the valuable leviathans that ruled the deep. Enter the world of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick. It begins when narrator Ishmael, a young man who yearns for adventure, and his newfound friend Queequeg board the Pequod, a whaling ship bound for the open ocean. The Pequod’s insane Captain Ahab leads Ishmael and the ship’s diverse crew on a hunt across the world to kill the white whale— known as Moby Dick. Ahab is mad with revenge after the notorious sperm whale bit off his leg decades prior. He is willing to sacrifice his crew to execute the behemoth. But Moby Dick’s famous whale is only half the story. This dense novel will teach you of the godly profession of whaling, the story of a young man new to this rugged culture, and how the hatred and insanity of one man can destroy a ship.

Melville constantly introduces new images that are alien to a land dweller, but I was never left without a clear idea in my head of what he was describing. This is because Melville always elaborates with a metaphor that captures the image perfectly. For example when describing a massive squid in Chapter 59, Melville thrusts a picture into my mind with this clever analogy.

“A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.” Like a nest of anacondas—I dare you to put it better.

Melville’s novel follows not only the Pequod’s misadventures, but a bulk of it is devoted to non-fiction descriptions of whaling, the whaling ship, types of whales, the ocean in general, and the different techniques involved in whaling. A critic might dismiss this part as not true “literature.” I couldn’t disagree more. Melville adds richness to the non-fiction section. He fills it with examples, and witty remarks that inform a reader. It broadens anyone’s understanding of whaling, so when the story does return to Ishmael Melville’s audience can follow the strange world of whaling much more closely.

Moby Dick is not only to be understood on a literal level. There are many layers to the story. A name or object often holds hidden meaning. Melville will include an obscure reference that a reader might never catch, and even though it may never enhance the story, he still includes them. For example in Chapter 128, the Pequod encounters the Rachael, another whaling ship. She is searching the waters for the smaller whaling boats that were set adrift during an unsuccessful hunt. After I had completed Moby Dick I learned that it was a biblical reference. In the Old Testament, Rachael is a woman who longs for children, similar to how the ship the Rachael longs for her smaller boats, or her children.

My one criticism is the lack of a strong narrative voice. In the beginning the focus is on Ishmael, and it is set in first person through his eyes. though it continues in first person it slowly loses Ishmael’s voice until it’s merely description. I want to hear his thoughts and reactions, his ideas and troubles. Perhaps Melville did not desire this. His writing style is quite loquacious but often empty of thoughts and feelings. He conveys emotion effectively through his incredible imagery. Still, I would have enjoyed the novel even more (if that’s possible) if I got to know Ishmael better.

Finally, I want to speak of the powerful symbol that Melville created in Moby Dick: the whale itself. The white whale is a god, a mammoth who rules the sea. The waves part when he swims, but to Ahab he is this unattainable goal, an obsession that consumes so many of his thoughts. The whale cannot be caught, yet he will hunt him to his death. So reader, when you finish this American classic, ask yourself: what is your white whale?

Ridgely

Penguin Classics, 672 pages


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