Moby Dick may be a classic of American literature. It may (apparently, so I’m told) have one of the most famous opening lines of any novel. None of that prevented me from coming to this book knowing almost nothing about it and from being faintly baffled when I opened it to the words ‘Call me Ishmael‘. Ishmael? Who is this upstart? Moby Dick is about Captain Ahab and his obsessive hunt for the great white whale, isn’t it? Isn’t it??
I’m sure I’m not alone in assuming that Moby Dick was going to be some sort of Boys’ Own Adventure Story of whaling boats, deadly peril and adventure on the high seas (in much the same way that the uninitiated think that Robinson Crusoe is some sort of novelised, jolly 18th century version of a Bear Grylls television show, in blissful ignorance of the tedious pot making, goat rearing, navel gazing and inexplicable bear hunting which actually comprise most of the novel). However, a quarter of the way through the novel and, while the Pequod has finally put to sea, it’s only five pages ago that we’ve so much as set eyes on Captain Ahab, the central character in my imagined version of the story, and although there’s been frequent references to them, there’s been nary a whale to be seen. I’m swiftly approaching the conclusion that Moby Dick is not a plotty book.
If it lacks some of the elements that I expected, it compensates for this by having a surprising number of things that I did not anticipate. I had expected it to have a similar sort of style to English novels that I have read from around the same period, but in fact Robinson Crusoe seems a reasonably accurate comparison: in spite of its having been written 130 years earlier than Melville’s work, these two novels have far more in common than Moby Dick does with many other Victorian novels. Like Crusoe, Moby Dick takes a story which you might expect to be all about plot and instead makes it discursive and rambling. Melville doesn’t summarise something when he can explain it in full, and he doesn’t limit himself to just explaining something in full when he can also philosophise about that. Nothing that Ishmael waxes lyrical about should be particularly relevant or important, but somehow everything is made to seem so. I’m not saying it’s a narrative style that I’m particularly enjoying, but I can see what he’s doing and it’s interesting to watch.
Although we have yet to go to sea, whaling has been a constant presence throughout the first quarter, and, while it will (I assume) drive the action later in the book, we are first introduced to it as a theoretical, philosophical thing. Ishmael provides a passionate defence of whaling, and Melville uses it to illustrate many of his religious points:
Yes, there is death in this business of whaling — a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact, take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and a stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.
I found the rather long-winded sermon about Jonah interesting because it put me in mind of all the medieval associations with Jonah and the whale. In the middle ages (I know this is broad, but it’s difficult to pin down beliefs like this) Christian scholarship liked to find foreshadowing of the coming of Christ and his death and resurrection hidden in earlier Bible stories. The whale was a widely used representation not only of the devil but of hell, and so they saw Jonah as a type of Christ. Both were taken from the world (either by crucifixion or being swallowed by a giant fish), both spent three days in hell and both emerged triumphant to proclaim the good news and spread God’s word. While I think it’s going to be a bit of a stretch to see the whalers as Christ-figures, this does make me assume that the period spent whaling is going to be, effectively, time spent in hell, after which the sailors will either be saved by the grace of God or condemned to death and eternal damnation. I think there’s an outside chance that Ishmael will be in the former category and the mysterious Ahab will be in the latter. I may be making links which the author didn’t intend, but these associations lend a mythological and religious weight of significance to the story of which I’m sure Melville would have approved.
However, Moby Dick isn’t all gravitas and religious metaphors; for me, Melville saves himself by touches of surprising humour, many of which come from Queequeg, the tattooed heathen from distant lands whom Ishmael befriends. He was another surprise (see how little I knew about this book?) but a welcome one. The unlikely scenes of Queequeg and Ishmael sitting in bed together in their fur jackets and sharing puffs of his peace pipe are bizarre, but they made me warm to Ishmael in a way that none of his moralising and philosophising has done so far. It’s good to have a more human element in among all of the lofty thinking, and Queequeg (or Quohog or Hedgehog as Captain Peleg mistakenly calls him) provides that. I look forward to seeing what Melville does with him as the story develops.
Once I’ve started a book, I don’t abandon it, so Moby Dick would have been finished even if I hadn’t found the first quarter intriguing. However, Moby Dick isn’t a book which has ever particularly called to me before, so even if I wouldn’t have given up on it, it would have remained unread on my shelves for much longer if it weren’t for The Blue Bookcase’s read along, so thanks very much for the encouragement!
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Published by The Readers’ Digest Association, 1996, pp. 495. Originally published in 1851.