We have been sold a bill of goods. When Moby Dick is discussed, it is often related as the tale of Captain Ahab’s obsession, his quest to destroy the famed white whale that claimed his leg and his sanity.
Which sounds like an awesome story. And for about, oh, say, 60 pages near the end of the book, that’s exactly what Moby Dick is, a pretty awesome story. It’s the other 460 pages I take issue with, 460 pages of sailors’ endless soliloquies on everything from what’s for lunch to the existence of God dotted among a complete accounting of all of the mindless minutiae of the commercial whaling world of the early 1800’s.
Gathered below are the scattered thoughts of this obsessed madman’s quest to slay the wicked, white whale of American literature.
* My main issue is mentioned above: This isn’t really about Ahab and his quest to kill the white whale. The numbers back me up.
– Ishmael and Queequeg don’t even leave for Nantucket until page 53, or 10% of the way through the book. I’m not talking about leaving to go whaling; I’m talking about actually getting on a boat to go to the town where they will get on the boat. Why? I’m unsure, except Melville gets to play the noble savage card when Queequeg dives overboard to save a dimwitted honky during the coastal cruise. The first 50 pages could have easily been cut down (or excised completely) and set in Nantucket. It’s self-indulgent.
– The Pequod doesn’t set sail until page 93 (17%). It’s almost 1/5 of the book before our crew leaves dry land.
– We don’t meet Ahab until page 107 (20.3%). The White Whale makes no appearance until the final showdown, but that can be made to work. Take Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the movie adaptation, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz and Coppola’s Col. Kurtz both cast an enormous shadow over their respective stories. Nothing happens in either tale without the reader thinking of Kurtz, hiding in the jungle, biding his time, waiting to wreak havoc on everyone and everything around him. But you can’t do that with your protagonist. Or, at least, Melville couldn’t do that with his. And, as I’ve already said, you can do this with the antagonist, but Melville does a poor job of that. Really, up until the time Moby Dick is about to make his appearance, Moby is almost an afterthought. Periodically, Ahab wanders out on deck, hails a passing ship and asks about the white whale. This is what passes for building tension. It never feels like you need to worry about the bleached leviathan until you have no choice but to worry about him.
– The great, white whale isn’t mentioned directly until page 145 (27.5%). It isn’t so much that we don’t know about our pal Moby until that point – we just know that Ahab lost his leg in a whaling incident – but by not knowing about him, we don’t know what the whole thrust of the whaling voyage is. We don’t know this is a revenge mission for Ahab, which is allegedly the entire point of the novel. Let me repeat that: Almost a third of the novel, and we don’t yet know the point. We have foreshadowing that the whaling voyage is going to kill a bunch of people, we have the noble savage narrative established, we know Ishmael is an experienced sailor and endless hype man, we’ve even been tutored on the proper way to make seafood stew. But Ahab’s motivation and the white whale who the damn book is named after are treated by Melville as mere afterthoughts.
– The Pequod crew finally sees whales on page 196 (37.2%). The whalers finally kill their prey on page 264 (50%). A lot more writing about whales than actual whales …
* Whaling, much like war, appears to be a hurry-up-and-wait proposition. This is part of what hurts Moby Dick. We get some fascinating scenes – such as an appearance by a giant squid or when the whaling boats float among an enormous pod of whales – and some scenes of great hilarity – when the savvy sailors of the Pequod take advantage of a ship of clueless whalers – during the journey. However, what Melville mostly serves up is armchair philosophy from a cast of characters that is less interesting than he would have us believe (and not very believable, as I would imagine most sailors of the early and mid-1800s were a little more free with the curse words than Melville’s cast is), as well as endless, minute details about the types of things only marine biologists or people who actually sail whaling vessels want or need to know. Then Melville attempts to justify this epic by forcing relationships – including everything from the whale’s tail and the steering of a ship – to classical literature and the Bible. When this is done in a nuanced manner, it can be very effective. When it’s hundred of pages of literary pummeling by this method, it eventually dissolves down to nothing more than a pudding-like mass of dreary bloviating. I guess what I’m saying is, if I had to write a “What I learned from Moby Dick” essay, it would start like this: Moby Dick made me extremely happy that there’s no chance I’ll ever be stuck sitting next to Herman Melville on a plane.
* To be fair to Mr. Melville’s tome, I set myself up to be disappointed by this book. The last novel I finished before Moby Dick was Winter’s Bone. Winter’s Bone is an Adam Laredo kind of novel. Don’t f*&% around, get to the point, drive the narrative, set a pace so intense that you are daring the reader to put the book down, even for a second. What author Daniel Woodrell created in Winter’s Bone is a true tale of obsession, the desperate search for truth by a young girl as she endures the trials of Job (See? Anyone can make biblical references) in meth-happy, cloistered, rural Missouri, all wrapped up in less than 200 pages. Plus, I’ve been waiting to start MaddAddam, the latest from one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, until after I finished Moby Dick. So maybe Moby never had a chance with me to being with.
* Does any of this mean Moby Dick shouldn’t be regarded as a classic? Well, yes and no. Is this a literary classic? I’d say no. It’s really not that well written. It’s too long, it’s uneven, it’s practically three damn books – the unnecessary intro, the encyclopedia and pulse-pounding ending. If you handed something like this to an editor today, you’d get laughed out of the building. Melville can write – read Bartleby the Scrivener – but Moby isn’t evidence of that so much as it is a display of his wide-ranging knowledge of the ocean.
That said, the historical value of Moby Dick is what makes it valuable. The knowledge and detail that makes this such a slow, mind-numbing read are exactly the sort of facts and data that historians treasure.
The verdict: Moby Dick, while it isn’t a great novel, is an important novel. That’s not going to change. So future English majors, keep that in mind. You’re not going to be able to avoid this tome. On the plus side, in your free time, you can always read some Margaret Atwood or Daniel Woodrell to inspire you and keep you sane.