After two weeks of devoted evening reading I reached the halfway point of Moby Dick at the weekend! It’s taken me till now to organise my thoughts and write them down. It feels like a real achievement because I have to admit that, despite my best efforts to like it, this is not a book that I’m enjoying. Nonetheless, I’m still very grateful to the lovely people at The Blue Bookcase for for organising this read-along; at least I know I’m not suffering alone.
In my post on part one of Moby Dick I commented that it didn’t seem to be particularly big on plot but that I hoped things might pick up a bit once the Pequod set sail. All I can say is that it’s a good thing I didn’t hold my breath, as there’s still not a lot been happening. My hopes were raised when the mysterious Ahab finally came up on deck and gave a rousing speech to the crew, promising gold and glory for the death of Moby Dick, the great white whale, but that has so far proven to be all talk and no action. There’s been one brief, abortive whale hunt but apart from that, these chapters are what I’m coming to consider Melville’s usual mixture of reported anecdotes, digressions and essays and I’m starting to find all it a bit tedious. Still, he says that ‘As yet, however, the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life‘ and I still have faith that Melville will eventually deliver this. He’s just going to do it in his own sweet time.
What I do like are the brief glimpses of character that Melville has provided; I find Ahab particularly fascinating. The way he keeps himself hidden below decks until the Pequod is in open waters was guaranteed to intrigue me, and he doesn’t disappoint when he finally appears. With his peg leg made from whale ivory and his sudden temper he cuts a forbidding figure, but he is somehow also magnetic. When he talks to the crew of Moby Dick and they respond with such fervour, they aren’t merely enthusiastic in reaction to Ahab’s promise of gold but to the charisma of the man himself. Ahab’s character is compelling and repelling and I’m looking forward to reading more about him (particularly now that Queequeg seems to have faded into the background and Ishmael become less a character than a narrative voice).
Unfortunately, I do think that Melville has made one huge mistake with Ahab, and that was allowing him a chapter of inner monologue in ‘Sunset‘. Apart from the fact that it really irritates me when authors decide to write a narrative in first person and then breaks out of it the first moment that it becomes inconvenient, I think it weakens the portrayal of the character to allow the reader into his head. Part of Ahab’s mystique is that he is aloof and unknown, so to see him thinking to himself ‘I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!’ rather spoils the effect. That it is followed by a similar insight into Starbuck’s thoughts and Stubb’s in turn, then a bizarre playscript style interaction between various unnamed sailors of different nationalities means that it isn’t even special; the reader doesn’t see only into Ahab’s thoughts but also those of other, less important characters, and I found this very off-putting.
Another area where I disagree with what Melville does is in the presentation of his various treatises. I understand why he has Ishmael go into such minute detail about whales and whaling – it provides a reading audience who would probably be unfamiliar with the practice with the information needed to fully immerse themselves in the setting (although whether anyone needs to know exactly how thick the rope attached to a harpoon is in order to truly appreciate the novel is debatable). The problem that I have with this approach is that, by providing the reader with such a level of knowledge, Melville ends up distancing the reader from the story as it happens. The minutiae of whaling is provided by an older and wiser Ishmael, speaking with the benefit of hindsight and experience. However, this happens at the expense of the Ishmael in the present tense of the narrative who is on his first whaling voyage, completely inexperienced and almost as ignorant as the reader was before they had reams of information thrust at them. He is discovering all this for the first time too, presumably, but instead of allowing the reader to discover this information along with Ishmael, Melville has future Ishmael deliver it in dry lectures which are often devoid of any immediate connection to the plot. I appreciate the need for a certain level of background information, but I’m not convinced about his method of conveying it.
Although I’m not a fan of Melville’s essay chapters on the whole, I was amused at times by his chapter entitled ‘Cetology’, where the tedium (he actually feels the need to define what a whale is; surely in the 19th century people would have known this?) was lightened by the occasional touch of humour. I like his division of whales into ‘folio’, ‘octavo’ and ‘duodecimo’ as though they were books rather than living things. I was also tickled by his description of the ‘Huzza Porpoise’, as he terms it:
This is the common porpoise found almost all over the globe. The name is of my own bestowal; for there are more than one sort of porpoises, and something must be done to distinguish them. I call him thus, because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven like caps in a Fourth-0f-July crowd.
This cheery image is only slightly marred by his later observation that ‘A well-fed, plump huzza porpoise will yield you one good gallon of good oil‘. I wish there had been more humour among the otherwise ponderous observations.
On a couple of occasions, the crew sing snatches of sea shanties and whaling songs. As I dyed in the wool folkie, I actually know a fair few of these songs which are still sung today, so I thought I’d leave you with two of my favourite whaling songs to get you in the mood for the second half of the book. It’s all downhill from here and there’s got to be some whaling action soon!