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 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.
on 6 January 2007
I read Moby-Dick for the first time when I was about 18, and have re-read it at least three or four times since. It is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most impressive books in Western literature, about ever so much more than the mere chase for a white whale.
It's about friendship, love, hubris, passion, the search for the meaning of life, etc. etc. Longwinded at times? Yes, definitely. Obscure? That too. Unless you're intimately acquainted with the Old Testament, Shakespeare, classical Greek drama and just about everything else in Western art it's a good idea to buy an edition that comes with ample footnotes.
But if you then take the time and effort this book deserves, it might very well be a life-changing experience as it was for me, that will sometimes make you stop and think for years afterwards.
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 25 September 2009
Now an undisputed classic of American literature, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" was a commercial failure on first publication in 1851, one from which Melville's reputation did not recover until the 1920's, long after his death. Some link the recognition that "Moby Dick" began to receive at this point to the recently-ended First World War, as those who had witnessed such wholesale and mindless slaughter searched for a meaning behind it all, and Melville's tragic vision of the human condition started to make sense.
Apart from being an adventure story about the search for the titular white whale by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and the crew of the ship he commands, the Pequod, the book also constitutes a handbook of technical information on whaling and related matters. Melville had himself served on a whaling ship so knew what he was talking about; that said, why he choose to interrupt the narrative so frequently with the minutiae of whaling is a mystery, as it is unquestionably difficult for the reader.
Furthermore, "Moby Dick" is a philosophical tract, a deep, troubled exploration of the human condition. Ahab's speech is almost all in the form of soliloquies, employing stately language influenced by Milton's "Paradise Lost." Here we see that Ahab defines his existence by his search for the white whale. Why?, that is the question. The fact that the answer is so hard to pin down is a great part of the book's enduring appeal. At times, the whale seems to symbolize the crushing indifference of the forces that surround us, that wreak havoc and perpetrate atrocities without consciousness, the implacable machinery of the universe. If Ahab can kill the murderous whale, he can assert himself against these forces. At other times, it is as though it is simply the enormity, and probable impossibility, of the challenge that drives Ahab on. From consciousness of the meaninglessness of existence, Ahab seeks refuge in his crazed pursuit of the unattainable. Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills to escape his own reality, Ahab has escaped himself in his devotion to this one task. In this way his quest is also perhaps symbolic of that of the artist, and Melville's own in attempting a book of such massive scope, great in conception, magisterial in execution, and wilfully demanding of the reader.
"Moby Dick" is not an easy book, nor, in so far as I have understood it, is it a comforting book. What it is, however, is an unflinching look into the abyss of senselessness that is existence, in Melville's view. This he sees with an unbearable clarity, a clarity next door to madness. It is this bleak vision that causes the book to haunt the mind long after the last page has been turned.
on 7 May 2012
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 15 May 1998
Savor this book like a rich dessert. Read it slowly, like poetry. An epic tragedy that is either loved or loathed, it may speak best to those who have known obsession, those who divine the many biblical allusions scattered through the pages and those who have an ear for the dated cadences of 19th Century prose.
The reader can't help but be awed by the maniacal Captain Ahab, who challenges God and nature, casts away all navigational aids, forges his own compass and ultimately relies only on his own cunning and instinct to search the untracked seas for the one thing in the world that consumes him, the White Whale.
The imagery is rich. At one point Melville describes a deathly still sea as a great magnifying glass and the sun overhead as the searing point of light gathered and focused by that glass.
A gold mine for the imagination, this book can be read once as a tragic quest, once as a work of poetry and once again as a huge metaphor or allegory. This book is like a deep pool that reflects back whatever is lurking in the reader's heart. Beware and enjoy.
on 24 July 2008
It's a classic allegory, but Moby-Dick is an arduous experience. I once read a summary that this book is only truly capable of being judged when read all the way through to its climax. The fact is, this book holds true to it, and even if when reading it you feel yourself slipping: keep at it, there is some superb English and some superb thought hidden in this book.
There are two faults with this book. First, and the biggest one, is the many many chapters on the technical aspects of Whaling and Cetology. Although interesting at first, they descend into Minutiae, and even I as a person who loved the book from cover to cover skipped a few chapters of this nature, scanning for any truly important passages. Secondly, in a few scenes the dialogue can get confusing, but these are generally not key scenes- so do not worry. Just remember that nearly everyone refers to themselves in the Third-Person, and Melville's lack of "said -" becomes less vexing and confusing.
The book does, however, contain some of the best prose I have ever read- and I've read a lot of it. Poetic, almost Shakespearean, and above all soaked in atmosphere, there are times when this book just astounds you with the vividness and tenacity of its language. With phrases like "made appalling battle" it sweeps away the less complex and incredibly simple modern bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code.
At the heart of the book is an intense symbolism that would sound ludicrous to those who have not read the book, the fact that one white whale could represent so plausibly so so many things does sound far fetched, but when you read it you find so many different answers. Fate, Providence, Nature, Madness, Death, Predestination- all these things run as Ahab and the Pequod's brave and diligent crew assail Moby-Dick.
Sure to be remembered as one of the greatest books ever written even in the far far future, this novel is an experience like no other- and an incredibly individual and personally driven one too, perhaps why it is the source of so much praise and so much perplexity. This book teaches you the art of writing, and the art of allegory.
on 12 July 2016
Well where to start, If I'd have been a proof reader back when this book was released no disrespect to herman Melvilles memory but I'd of said look my fellow these 300 pages of the 484 page book are unnecessary and don't keep the story moving along. In other cons the book is basically a biology book on whales and tells of different tribes of the world which really doesn't need to be told because moby dick is why you bought this book in the first place. Long posh words are used also so anyone not being versed heavily in Collins English dictionary will be confused as to what they mean. Herman Mellville also witters on talking complete jargon making it an audacious task to read. Didn't like it in my opinion as the made for tv film with Patrick Stewart released in 1998 is far better to watch than read this drivel !!!