Nov 15

Book Review: Moby Dick; or, The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The WhaleMoby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville

I find it cunningly ironic when the entire review of a novel can be summed up in a quote from the same novel. So here it is: “the whale would be by all hands considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite.” Moby-Dick isn’t so much a great novel, but a valuable historical document that happens to contain a story within it.

I admit, I don’t much care for 19th century literature. I dislike the length and the slow pace; so much of it is tedious that when a rare piece of plot does happen, it’s easy to miss. The prophecy is heavy-handed and the metaphor confusing. For example, the story of the blacksmith (which I quite liked) says that his family was destroyed by a burglar who came into his house. “…the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct that burglar into his family’s heart. It was the Bottle Conjurer! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.” Was it a djinn? An efreet? A demon? They talked so often about demons and devils and barbarians and Jojo the spirit who talked to QueeQueg I took this literally. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that the blacksmith was a drunk. I guess that’s clever, and it was my favorite part (I liked the bit about his wife diving into the churchyard grass) but never using one word where an entire paragraph will suffice gets confusing at times.

Another thing I dislike about 19th century literature is that that they are written as if women either did not exist or were merely troublesome wildlife. He actually draws the comparison. He describes a fast (tied or harpooned) whale as belonging to the owner of the harpoon and a loose (free) whale as being up for grabs, and after making this comparison applies it to a wife whose husband abandoned her, who changed his mind and wanted her back later. The courts decided if she got loose, she was up for grabs. Yeah, I know, I know. That was the style at the time. I get it. Product of its era, blah blah. But I dislike being reminded that for most of human history (and even now, in some eyes) people of my gender were merely livestock. And not even good livestock. The mighty whale, whom Melville much admires, is always “he,” whereas the sea bird that’s pretty but weak is “she.” I also dislike the constant use of references to classical works, as if a nodding wink wink to prove the author is well-read. I imagine that modern works peppered with song lyrics and movie quotes and stupid memes will also not age well. It’s steeped in the racism of the time as well. For example, at one point a sailor, a black boy named Pip, jumps out of the boat and they pick him up but warn him they may not next time, because they could sell him in Louisiana for the cost of a fraction of the value of the oil they hope to get. Pretty much all foreigners are described as strange, stupid, and somewhat devilish. And he doesn’t seem to know as much about people as he does about whales. QueeQueg is also a mismash of a Maori and a West African, with a bit of Arab thrown in there.

But man, Melville did know an awful lot about whales. As I learned through my own research on a different animal, no one knows an animal quite like those who hunt it. He knows where they migrate and what the composition of their packs are what their spouts look like and how often they spout and with what frequency. He calls them fish, but they know they are mammals and can see them nursing cubs. He knows they are clever and knows that human hunting had altered their social structure and migratory patterns, but has a half chapter saying that while it’s true there were fewer and fewer of them, and human hunting had already destroyed vast seemingly limitless herds of bison, the whale was fierce and strong and the sea was large and so surely there were plenty more. Little did he know that even in 1850 several whale populations had been severely damaged almost past the point of recovery. But a whaler would see these animals as money for the taking, something to be purchased, owned, and profited from, much as they saw over half of the world’s human population. We are not so removed from our barbaric past.

And the pace. Dear god, the pace is like a long sea voyage. Do we really need a chapter that tells everything you know about every type of whale? Do we really need an entire chapter describing the coin nailed to the main mast in intricate detail, with several monologues on the implications of the zodiac signs? Do we really need an entire chapter explaining to us the significance of Moby-Dick’s color? I mean, come on, dude, that’s what college lit classes are for, you don’t need to splice chapters of comparative mythology into your ripping sea yarn. Want to know why your contemporaries liked Omoo better? Hint, hint, chapters like this.

To be sure, some of it was cool. Ishmael goes to great lengths to compare whale hunters to the greatest heroes of all ages, by reason that the whale is as great a monster as a dragon. Some of the meandering tangents I saw the point of. I liked the story about the mutiny (though it could have been shorter) because it was important to explain why the crew did not mutiny against crazy Captain Ahab. I liked the story about how dangerous sperm whales could be, because it was important later on. There were also a few charming bon mots in there, like when Ishmael explains why he signed up for a whaling ship instead of being a passenger, because he thinks getting paid to sail is really the tops. Or when he’s in bed and it’s cold and he says you can really only feel cozy and warm when it’s cold outside.

But much as I cared more about Lolita than her rapist, I couldn’t help reading this without feeling that Moby-Dick was the real hero of the story. I sympathized more with the beleaguered and embattled white warrior with the harpoons stuck in him destroying ships to save his people than I did about the greasy little assholes on the ship decks looking to make a buck by murdering sentient sea creatures. Taken from his point of view, Moby-Dick is a mighty warrior defending whaledom from the monsters who were depopulating the seas. I felt more indignation about the whales who died to make the oil that was lost when a ship went down than I was about the sailors. Except for Pip and Ahab, most of them didn’t have much of a personality.

And Ahab, seriously. What a tool. Yeah, so you lost a leg. You murdered thousands of Moby-Dick’s people. You’re more than even, dude. He reads like the kind of guy who follows a motorist for 70 miles until they run out of gas and then shoots and kills the driver for cutting him off (hint=people don’t cut you off. That’s called merging.) Like, seriously, his lust for vengeance was straight into serial-killer territory. And yet Ishmael had his choice of ships, because QueeQueg’s Jojo said that Ishmael would make the best choice, when clearly the Pequod was not the best choice. But I guess there’d be no story otherwise.

So, plot summary. (view spoiler)

I’m glad I listened to it, though it did seem a chore when the pacing dragged on and on. Is it my favorite book? Hell no. It’s not even my favorite 19th century sailing book. It’s not even my third favorite 19th century sailing book, and this isn’t a genre I’m well read in. Melville was a good writer in that he can really make beautiful sentences, but this book needed at least 50% cut to make it exciting to a modern reader. If I were his editor, I’d advise him to write this as a novella, or a long poem. It would have all the emotional impact without the tedium. I didn’t enjoy this book. It wasn’t much fun, excepting that I learned a little about the whaling industry in the 19th century. It felt more like a textbook than a story, and the only real action I cared about happened in literally the last 10 minutes of the audiobook. I didn’t care about the characters, didn’t feel invested in their triumph, and felt no emotional connection to anyone.

View all my reviews

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