So, finishing Moby Dick didn’t quite go according to plan. I should have had it all done by 2nd February, but that deadline made a whooshing sound as it flew by (Douglas Adams would have approved) and I found myself almost at the end of February still with a quarter of the book to go. Although I’m a very long way behind, it seems sensible to stick to the original division of the book provided by The Blue Bookcase, so here’s my thoughts on part three.
Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying this chunk much more than I did the previous two. I think this can largely be attributed to the fact that stuff has finally happened! There were whales! They chased the whales! They caught the whales! They killed the whales! They butchered the whales! All very exciting in a book in which, up till this point, the most action packed scene has been the one in which Queequeg got into bed with an unsuspecting Ishmael. In fact, I’m coming to accept that this book is structured in a way that (for me) sort of reflects the struture of a four year whaling voyage: there’s a long of long, tedious, monotonous crusing around waiting for something to happen, interspersed with very brief, intense, exciting bursts of action. Then we return to the monotony.
Speaking of monotony, I’m three quarters of the way through this book and still no Moby Dick. When is the eponymous poxy white whale actually going to show up? I think I’m more impatient about this than Ahab is now. He can’t hide for much longer; there’s only 125 pages left!
Bizarrely, it’s been Melville’s meticulous marine biology (which I’m finding much more interesting than his meticulous rope describing) that have given me the greatest sense of history so far. As their first whale caracass is being butchered, Ishmael describes the body of the whale and what each part does, with a chapter devoted to the impenetrable forehead which houses the precious sperm oil. At this point, it finally dawned on me due to the gaping omission in Melville’s unrelentingly thorough description that he (and indeed his contemporaries) had no idea what this massive forehead was for. A quick search of Wikipedia confirms that it wasn’t until the 1950′s that scientists discovered and properly described echolocation in toothed whales, and so Melville clearly thought that the sperm whale navigated using its tiny eyes and tiny ears, not knowing that the whale’s blunt forehead and the spermaceti contained within were provided one of the most complex and effective natural sonar systems in the world. Even the concept of sonar would have been completely alien to him. It feels a bit odd to know something about Melville’s specialist subject that he didn’t, but this, more than anything else for me, has rooted the novel back in the 1800′s where it belongs.
Onwards to the east to find the white whale in part four!