on 21 August 2013
I had long put off reading Moby Dick following a first, unsuccessful attempt as a teenager and mixed feedback from others who have tried. So I approached it again with some trepidation and much respect. It is a difficult novel in some regards. The language and style are antiquated, and the flow of the story is frequently interrupted by didactic chapters on the art of whaling, the anatomy of the whale and whaling in art. In spite of this, Melville tells a great story about pre-industrial whale-hunting in which the hunters rowed right up to the jaws of the monster to plant a harpoon in its side and fight the thrashing beast for its life, surely one of the most adventurous and daring professions ever undertaken.
What makes Moby Dick literature rather than a mere adventure story is that it can and has been read at so many more levels. To me it reads like an allegory about America itself in the early 1850s, when the young nation founded on Enlightenment ideas was already creaking under the weight of its own contradictions.
The ship's crew is a microcosm of the US; much as the American ship of state was led by whites while most of the back-breaking work was done by slaves, the whaler hunting Moby Dick has white officers commanding a crew in which the most dangerous and physical jobs are performed by a group of harpooners comprising a black, an Asian, a Pacific Islander and a native American. The white captain, Ahab, leads this crew in the pursuit of the biggest beast in the ocean, in the same way that the white leaders of multicultural America had been chasing their own leviathan, the creation of a continental empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Only a few years before Moby Dick's publication, the United States had annexed territories stretching from Texas to California following a war with Mexico.
The whiteness of the whale is as significant as its size. The aggressive albino whale is the dangerous prize of white America: Melville is warning the nation that its pursuit of a white empire risks engulfing America itself, in the same way that the white whale ends up sinking its hunter. By the time the novel was published in the early 1850s, the divisive issue of slavery was beginning to make civil war in the US seem inevitable. Gloom about the future of the United States was widespread. The white settlers had by this time already wiped out many native Americans, including the tribe of the Pequod which gave its name to Captain Ahab's whaling ship, a fact paralleled in the novel by the white whale's annihilation of Ahab's Pequod. Reading Moby Dick as an allegory about the dangers of pursuing white supremacy and an ever-larger white empire in North America does not seem far-fetched.
The novel can also be read at a more metaphysical level as a reflection on the journey of life; indeed it is the narrator's realization that it is "drizzly November in my soul" that prompts him to go a-whaling. Ishmael is searching for meaning and purpose. As Ahab's monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale unfolds, Ishmael's observations of the natural landscape and events around him prompt reflections on the value of temperance, the equality of man, the persistence of mistaken beliefs, and the general mystery and unfathomableness of life. Ahab represents the vanity and conceit of humans, which leads most of their activity to a dead end. In such a reading of the novel, it is no accident that the obsessed, driven and maniacal Ahab perishes, while tolerant and humble Ishmael survives.
Sometimes literary reviews put me off (no offense to other reviewers) so this is simply my review on this book. Moby Dick is a tough read it's true. It starts off fine enough, reading very much like a regular novel, but once aboard the ship certain chapters start veering off-story and end up reading more like an encyclopaedia of whales and whaling. The story itself though is a good one and is actually both funny and gripping. There are some very funny moments, right in the first chapters I found myself laughing at the actions of some characters, and further into the story it is gripping. For those that don't know the basic story of Moby Dick is told from Ishmael's point of view as he joins a crew on the ship to go whaling. Along the way we learn of the captain's obsession to catch the white whale, Moby Dick.
I won't go into too much detail as not to spoil it but this classic is still worth the read if you can last through the more factual chapters. These chapters can be boring to read for those more interested in a good story but you actually do end up learning a lot about the different whales and how the whole whaling worked in the past. However you do at times feel like wondering if the factual bits will ever end. The book can actually be a little squeamish for devout animal lovers as there's quite detailed explanations of removing the blubber from whales but of course this book IS about whaling.
The ending of the story actually kept me engrossed I just had to finish the last chapter. I was surprised how much I wanted to read the end, after a few very long factual chapters the pace of the story really picked up towards the end and I was glad to get through this book, the ending for me does not disappoint.
Because this is a wordsworth classic there are plenty of extras, the best part of this book as that certain words or terms that don't exist or are confusing today are numbered thoughout the book. You can turn to the back of the book where there is an index of these numbers and a brief explanation of the word or term. I found this invaluable in my reading and it really does help in all the classics to have this index.
The wordsworth classic also holds plenty of notes at the front, if you want to take a more literary look at the book (much as you would at school), but don't read this section first as it can give away certain things.
I'd recommend this book to anyone really interested in reading the classics as I am. There is no profanity and no sex, but will tax the less inclined reader. It's not an easy book to get through, and at times you can glaze over all the factual information, but for those that can stick it out please do try. Unfortunately one or two chapters do move the focus from Ismael's point of view to suddenly everyone's...reading more like a script for a film, but if you can deal with this change (it only happens once) then it's still worth reading
I'm rating it a 3 as despite the gripping story, I still find it tough to read through, and I have other books I do prefer, but for the story part I do give it a 5.
This book is funny, gripping and factual all at the same time and you will need to read it again to appreciate it some more. But for anyone interested in the classics I'd certainly recommend this one, just be prepared for the non-fiction parts which do take away some of the excitement.
The prose is so vivid that the only comparison that comes to mind is Shakespeare. Some sentences or paragraphs are so finely wrought as to hit you between the eyes, and as such I can say that I am glad I have read it, and if life were longer I might even read it again. However, I have to concede that the book is very hard work. What story there is all takes place in the last 25 pages and is an action tour-de-force, but the previous 400 or so pages are lengthy and wordy digressions on whales, whaling and all conceivable ancillary topics, which at their worst are maddeningly garrulous. The characterisation is poor, unsurprisingly given that so little of the text is devoted to the players. Ishmael, the narrator is virtually a disembodied observer who brings little of himself to the action. Ahab is the tortured megalomaniac for whom we are given no opportunity for sympathy or empathy. All the other human characters, namely the ship's crew, are mere automata. Those of a nautical bent might get excited about the details of the ship, the Pequod, which is more lovingly written than the humans or the whales, but I'm not that way inclined.
I can see this book being truly relished by hardcore literature buffs with a love of ships and the sea, but I can't help but feel that just about anyone else would find it very heavy going.
on 24 August 1999
I would like to believe that Melville was years (maybe centuries) ahead of his time, but more than likely he was just plain nuts, apparently stalking Hawthorne and who knows what else. This shouldn't stop you from enjoying the fun though! In MD we basically have two ideas going on, with Ahab's whole monomaniac pursuit of the whale bookending hundreds of pages that essentially capture Ishmael's (sun)baked thoughts during his three years or so on board the Pequid. This middle section will either bore and repel the reader, or suck them in, resembling some post modern-ish films like Satyricon, or perhaps the writings of some lost beat author. This middle section is a detailed narrative of every thought that strikes Ishmael's mind as he is immersed in what must be a remarkably dull setting. So instead, his mind wanders, seeing analogies in every bit of rope and whale tissue to the relationship between man and God, man and nature, man in society, etc. The idea is so absurd and executed so bombastically that it works. Had the man he dedicated this book to (Nathaniel Hawthorne) wrote MD instead, it would have been awful, but Melville can write about Ahab's pipe with enthusiasm, and put that very same pipe into a mythic perspective! Of the outer story, what is there left to say? Only an American author could take the standard tragedy of man bested by the fates and turn it into man bested by the fates/decides to hunt down and kill God! An absolutely fantastic and unforgettable book, but I would have enjoyed more ramblings from Ishmael. I'm serious!!!
4 stars? Nooo, a bit mean. 1? Embarrassing. 5, Certainly. This book lays claim to be that mythical beast, The Great American Novel and its scope is vast and I am not sure if Melville's reach has exceeded his grasp... but then in a way that is what the book is about: ambition. Yes, the first chapter is deliberately (?) boring as Melville imparts as much data on whales as he can. This is your 'ticket of entry.' Now one of the great first lines in all literature "Call me Ishmael" more beguiling than anything the Ancient Mariner ever managed, as well as one of the greatest final lines. Between this and Moby Dick himself you have the figure of Father Mapplethorpe delivering his Cetacean-oriented sermon in an appropriately whale 'themed' church in Nantucket, preparing the mariners for what all know is a dangerous mission; of Queequeg, a Native American actually seen as a human being; the archetypal Capt Ahab, in search of the ideal...which is A whale? God? Truth? Perfection? Desire? All of the above? Yup? Or maybe 'just' mad? It's a magnificently written book too, for all its superabundance, its longueurs and its helpless, inevitable prolixity; this man wants to cover everything, he is HUGELY ambitious - and it is a Whale Tale! The characters and richness of language may justifiably be called Shakespearian, he is chancing more than an arm on this one (and like Ahab, lost; well for 70 odd years he 'lost'). You feel here something of Melville's metaphysical Doubt as he closes on truth, feels it as just receding from us like the world from Tantalus. Forget the nay-sayers; this is a masterpiece, and no-one else has ever written a novel like this, not even Melville, Go on, try it.
P.S. In response to the excellent review below, I am not a fan of ships and the sea, I'm more attracted by Melville's quest for Truth, in what looks at times like a frustrated Gnosticism, anger at a god in which or whom he cannot believe yet feels he should.
on 10 November 2013
Just the name of the whale - Moby-Dick -- evokes the feeling of immense power, both physical and psychological, that imbue this great epic with drama and a feeling of awe of almost mythical proportions.
Hard to credit that its publication (in 1851) created barely a stir: after a couple of well received earlier sea-stories, Melville's "Moby-Dick" received poor reviews (initially in England, where it was first published), sold poorly, and was virtually unknown until long after Melville's death. Then, after the end of the first World War, Melville and his work were rediscovered; the revival of his work in the 1920s led to "Moby-Dick" becoming recognized as the towering achievement it is, a compelling story of obsession and revenge, one of the greatest American novels of all time.
This edition, well formatted and with excellent period illustrations, is one that I'll want to keep so I can re-read it from time to time.
One of the most famous and celebrated novels ever written, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" is a towering novel in world literature whose legendary story of the doomed whaling ship the Pequod setting off with its mad Captain Ahab at the helm to destroy the fabled white whale Moby-Dick, is so well known that most people who've never read the book know what it's about.
I was one of these people and having now read it, I can say that that's a pretty succinct summary of the book. That said, there are lots of moments in the book I wasn't aware of and was surprised to discover in reading it.
First off, I approached this book knowing most of the characters and the general story already so it was great to read the most famous opening lines in literature - "Call me Ishmael" - and to be introduced to the familiar cast of characters I'd never met before. From Ishmael to Queequeg, to Starbuck, the Pequod and Ahab, I found it thrilling to meet them one by one and to find subtleties in their characters that you won't know unless you read the book.
But I was surprised at how gay (as in homosexual) the novel is. The first 100 pages takes place in Nantucket where Ishmael hasn't signed up to the Pequod yet and is waiting around for a commission. He takes a room in an overbooked inn agreeing to share the bed with a "savage" called Queequeg. Not that sharing a bed with a man is gay exactly but Ishmael and Queequeg quickly become fast friends, looking forward to bed time where they touch knees and noses and tell each other secrets (really). Ishmael even says on more than one occasion that he feels "married" to Queequeg and comforted by waking up with his arms around him. Plus the book's title has "dick" in it, Queequeg's head is tattooed purple, and it's about a group of seamen lustily chasing a white sperm whale...
Anyway, hilarity aside, I found myself enjoying this strange book - while they were in port at least. Even when Ishmael and Queequeg sign up to the Pequod but then they ship out and the book comes to a grinding halt. The edition I read was 625 pages long and the Pequod sets sail somewhere around page 200; for the next 300, maybe more, pages Ishmael (or more accurately Melville) decides to tell the reader everything there is to know about whaling, no matter how obscure or dull or esoteric.
He tells you about the different types of whales and the differences between the whales, from the diameters of their fins, to the way they're cut up once killed, and so on. Then he talks about the instruments used in hunting whales - I can't even begin to describe what these are but my goodness, take my word when I say he is very thorough in describing them. How they were made, what they're made of, what their purpose is, how to clean them, how to store them - this is all explored at length! Did someone say famous whaling cases? He's got these as well. He mentions how big an industry whaling is (and it was in the 1850s, the fifth largest industry in America though once petroleum was discovered to have many more uses, whale oil faded out and by the beginning of the 20th century the whaling boom was finished for good) and the many uses whale oil has.
I've barely scratched the surface of the kind of tedious details any fiction reader doesn't give a damn about but be warned all ye who enter here: there are many hundreds of pages of utterly unnecessary, pointless and skull-crushingly boring details wedged in preventing the reader from enjoying the real story.
The real story being why the book has endured so long, and it really is quite good. From the time they leave port, if Melville had gone straight from that to an incident or two of killing whales, skipping about 300 pages of rubbish, and then onto the final confrontation between the Pequod and Moby-Dick, I'd be singing this book's praises and giving it five stars. As such, don't believe anyone who tells you this is an un-putdownable adventure read. They're lying to you. Nobody who has read the unabridged version would in their right mind think that reading about the role of buckets in the ship's hold or a 5 page description of a whale's blow hole is in any way interesting, not even remotely. Shenanigans, I say!
Having said that, I'm glad I read it. There were moments I genuinely enjoyed reading it from the way Melville describes the whaling town of Nantucket, to the complex and fascinating relationship between Ahab and Starbuck, to the final words of Ahab as he faces his doom in the face of the white whale ("from hell's heart I stab at thee!"). That said, I don't think I would ever read this again, or at least if I did I would skip most of the passages I know are about things unrelated to the story of these characters and of no interest whatsoever.
If you're a student of literature like me, willing to face down the leviathan that is this book, you're going to read this anyway, there's no way a book of this magnitude will get past you without the urge to find out for yourself what it's like and making up your own mind. But for the casual reader, out for a good read, some fun? Stay well away from this book. It will cause frustration and more skim-reading than you'll ever do for any other book.
If only Melville had an editor...
on 24 April 2014
If you like books that make you think laugh ponder your existence and religion then this is an essential that demands your attention it's very obscure and you will need to retread several parts of it to understand it but overall moby dick is a book you should read before you die
on 3 April 2016
I bought this edition to replace my Norton edition of "Moby Dick" and I have to say that I have mixed feeling about it. For those who want to enjoy reading Moby Dick, this book is not for you. It distracts you too much if you are the first time reader of Melville's epic prose. The Longman's version (LV) is written and organized in such way that the publisher makes sure the supplemental/critical materials get your attention - which sadly distracts you from the text of Melville. The publisher makes an excuse for this. They claimed that the original text of Moby Dick as published in the U.K. was heavily expurgated by the Victorian editors who were sensitive in matters touching religion, sex, and social topics. They were right on this; it was partly the expurgation that caused Moby Dick to be a flop in England and ended his career as a writer. Longman's edition argues that we should know the history of textual censorship of Moby Dick to appreciate it. But ..... having said that, the information about expurgated text should be provided in the appendix. In stead, the publisher made sure that you heed their scholarship by "blurring the text" that the British publishers remove from the original manuscript. On top of that, the editors of this version add extensive information about textual revision right at the end of each chapter - making the book both inelegant and interrupt the readers' concentration. I cannot even begin to tell you how the book's layout irritates me.
Now this Longman's edition has its own merit. Melville's numerous allusions to the Scripture and his injections of sarcasm were made plainly apparent to readers. In our secular time, Longman's edition provides an important knowledge into how to appreciate this great work. Melville's allusions, for example the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Dives), has been an important source for social criticism throughout western civilization. But now that common awareness was lost to our generation. Norton's critical edition also has information about these biblical reference but Norton does not make a mission of it to push those information to our attention. Longman's edition however is written with the goal to compare between the American text and Victorian text of Moby Dick.
on 7 May 2012
A REVIEW OF `MOBY DICK' BY HERMAN MELVILLE
Herman Melville's `Moby Dick' is a novel that requires no elaborate introductions. Since its arrival in 1851, it has established itself as a giant among American literature. That it remains in print in so many forms and courtesy of so many distinguished publishers speaks volumes for the book's longevity. Among the `classics', it is very much a "must read".
In terms of plot, the entry for a recent showing of the 1956 movie offered the following succinct summary: "Faithful telling of the classic novel in which an obsessed sea captain sets sail to seek revenge upon a whale that bit his leg off." Yes, folks, that's pretty much it. However, it is the brilliantly-evocative STORY-TELLING of `Moby Dick' that makes it stand out from the crowd. Melville's written style and word-play is wonderfully rich and enticing. The story is narrated by Ishmael, who signs up for Captain Ahab's whaling/revenge mission with a range of fellow misfits and ne'er-do-wells. Among the best passages are the opening chapters centred in Nantucket before the voyage aboard The Pequod. Ishmael's arrival in town, his stay and The Spouter Inn and hearing of a sermon at a Whaleman's Chapel (the one about Jonah and The Whale no less!) are all described with a remarkable realism that propels the reader into the time and place. We can almost hear the creaking floorboards, feel the oppression of the storm-filled skies and smell the salt in the air. Likewise, the concluding chapters tell the story of the hunt for Moby Dick with breath-taking grit and pace with foaming water seemingly flooding out of the pages. There is tremendous crescendo of foreboding, then chaos and then calm which lingers long after the story ends.
The plot of `Moby Dick' is only one facet of the novel. Based upon Melville's own experiences, a large proportion of the book is a factual recounting of the business of whaling in the mid-1800s. As such, there are chapters devoted solely to the equipment on board The Pequod, such as `The Line', and many devoted to the processing and dissecting of a dead whale's carcass, such as `The Tail'. Whilst simultaneously gruesome and interesting, such sections do inevitably encroach upon the unfolding story and explain my trimming of a star from the final x/10 total. Such a criticism could equally be made of Alexandre Dumas' `The Three Musketeers' if he had interrupted the tale with chapters devoted to the forging of duelling swords, differing types of blade and the anatomical analysis of how best to skewer an opponent!
Nevertheless, such criticisms really stem from the fact that the factual information that bulks-up `Moby Dick' can be found through a variety of other sources today, whereas in 1851, Melville's whaling descriptions would have been uniquely insightful to most readers. Therefore, ignoring the stuttering pacing of the novel, `Moby Dick' continues to exist as a sprawling, fascinating and truly epic tale that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels. Indeed, those striving for meaning will enjoy pondering the significance of the frequent religious and mythical symbolism, whilst others will simply thrill to the passages describing the pulsating power of a whale at sea.
Thus, although it demands patience and persistence, `Moby Dick' truly remains a whale of a tale.
Barty's Score: 9/10