Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851) 625 p.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Thus begins Moby-Dick, a heavy novel both literally and figuratively, considered one of America’s finest tales and written by a master of the English language. It took me nearly three weeks to read this gargantuan book, which I suppose is appropriate.

It is a fascinating novel. On the surface, Moby-Dick appears to be a simple adventure tale about the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod, a vessel commanded by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, who lusts for vengeance against the infamous albino whale that cost him his leg in a previous encounter. It examines the whaling industry in every stark, grisly detail, sparing no account of the dismemberment of the whales or the horrors of the voyage, and while this life may seem romanticised and exotic now, at the time it was a profession regarded on the same level as meatpacking or carpentry. It should not be a masterpiece – and yet it is.

Almost the entire story takes place aboard the Pequod, and there are less than ten major characters. Despite these constraints – or perhaps because of them – Moby-Dick is an epic, sprawling novel, touching upon hugely complex themes. The characters speak in grand Biblical and Shakespearean fashion, soliliquising about life, death and the universe, speaking to the reader in frequent asides, contemplating the meaning of their voyage, of their desires, of their true nature. Whalers spent a lot of time at sea, sometimes going years without sighting land. With nothing to look at but the depths of the ocean and the depths of the stars, it’s not surprising that their minds turned to thinking about some heavy shit.

Ishmael, though he is the narrator, is no major character – this is Captain Ahab’s story, the story of a tragic hero in the Greek fashion, his fatal flaw being a completely illogical thirst for vengeance. Ahab is not a bad man, nor a bad captain. He is simply mad, yet not so mad that he does not realise it, and not so mad that he does not take pains to hide it from his crew. The second most important character is Starbuck, the first mate, and the only member of the Pequod’s crew who does not get swept up by Ahab’s grand, hypnotic speeches and declare to follow the captain into the jaws of hell. Starbuck voices his doubts regularly, frequently clashes with Ahab, and towards the end of the voyage contemplates murdering the man before he gets them all killed. As the book and the voyage draws to a conclusion, and both Starbuck and Ahab grow more tortured and melancholy, this becomes a truly sad story.

Melville displays a much greater command of the English language then he did in Typee; almost every page contains references to great stories that came before him, to old English literature, to the Bible, to the Greek and Roman canon. Likewise, his own skill with words creates powerful imagery:

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcass; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.

…Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

Any masterpiece has its flaws, of course – Moby-Dick’s is the enormous pile of tedious chapters in which Melville, via Ishmael, feels obliged to dump all the knowledge of the whale he has accumulated over his career onto the reader. He discusses the head, the spine, the tail, the skeleton, the whale’s distribution, whale psychology, whale herding behaviour, laws pertaining to whaling and so forth. He gushes on and on about the whale’s sublime form, its majesty, its titanic beauty, that I eventually felt like shouting “JUST HAVE SEX WITH ONE ALREADY.” Moby-Dick has been successfully adapted to the stage for three reasons: the small cast of characters, the single setting, and the fact that at least half the book consists of completely superfluous chapters that can easily be cut. I understand why they’re there, but there was no need whatsoever to have quite that amount of them, or even to award them separate chapters rather than weaving them into the main narrative.

In spite of its flaws, I was impressed by this book. It did grow tedious towards the end, and I do have trouble reading stories more than a hundred years old (let alone those that employ lofty Shakespearean dialogue). It is not an easy book to read, and I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed it. But I was intrigued by it, and swept up in it, and as the tragic overtones became more explicit towards the conclusion, I was moved by it. I am glad that I read it, and glad that it exists. Moby-Dick is truly an amazing piece of writing, and has rightfully earned its place in the firmament of literary history.