Top positive review
A great American Novel, but not THE Great American Novel
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 22, 2013
This novel is an epic - part story, part character study, part a discourse on whales and whaling circa the 1840s, part philosophy and in the end sheer tragedy. It's a big book physically (the paper back from Oxford Press with small print runs more than 500 pages) and a huge book intellectually It tends to overcome the reader with its rush of power, drama, character, conflict, doom and death. There's no humor in it. It's dead serous. - with a power and meaning which may feel more familiar to readers with Yankee genealogy and a cultural heritage of Congregational theology than those without. . You be the judge.
It's not easy reading. One doesn't rush through this book or scan it; and when the long story finally ends and you put the book down and realize then that only Ishmael was left to tell the story of Captain Ahab and the White Whale you are left thinking Just what does it all mean?. Or does it mean anything in particular? Was it just a story told by a great writer as a story and nothing else?
My answer to this will be threefold. The book is mostly story. It does have a moral in Father Mapple's sermon (more about this later) and every reader is able to find some allegory, some secondary meaning according to his mindset.
So far as story goes one can pretty well summarize it by saying it's the story told by a merchant sailor named Ishmael who signs on for a whaling voyage in the early middle decades of the nineteenth century. His ship, the Pequod, 85 feet long and 228 tons, sails from Nantucket one frigid December morning, bound for the South Seas and hoping to return after two years when a hold full of whale oil.. He skipper is just "Captain Ahab" - never a last name. On her last voyage Ahab's right leg had been taken off by a huge white whale called Moby Dick and Ahab is seeking revenge on the beast. The Pequod has a crew of about thirty, her mates - Starbuck, Stubb and Trask being Nantucketers or Cape Codders, three harpooners - Queequeeg, Fedallah and Tashtego - plus a cook, cabin boy and carpenter and enough crew to fill out the required four to five oarsmen for each of her three boats. Ahab, more interested in vengeance on the white whale than the voyage itself, enlists the crew in his mission and after almost two years of indifferent success at whaling in the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean the waters off the Philippines they finally sight Moby Dick in the mid Pacific off Japan. But after a three-day chase described in some of the best-sustained prose I have ever read it is Ahab who is killed not the whale. Moby Dick turns on his pursuers, destroys their boats, kills their occupants and them rams and sinks the Pequod leaving Ishmael as the only survivor, alone in the water clinging to a floating coffin.
There is so much more the story - depending on how you read it - that I scarcely know here to begin. There is allegory - the quest for vengeance. - and metaphor - just what does the white whale represent? There are characters -Queequeg, the tattooed Polynesian harpooner. Starbuck - first mate, the voice of sanity and professionalism. Stubb - second mate, strong but dumb. Perth - the carpenter, about whom Melville says some very kind things. Fedallah - the Asian, Ahab's harpooner who predicts Ahab's fate. And there are too many more to be mentioned here. You need to meet them.
Then there is the writing - Shakespearian, elegant, beautiful, celestial, effusive - with a flow of words the likes of which I have not read before except in Shakespeare or in parts of the Bible. But there are long words; and there are long, convoluted sentences, some a paragraph in length. More than once in the middle of a long sentence I lost track of what Melville was trying to say and had to stop and go back to see where the sentence began and where it might end. Melville is the antithesis of Hemingway. When he can use a polysyllabic word he does. Some of it is more than a bit stilted to the modern ear not only because the Nantucketers were Quakers and used the Quakerisms of "thy" and "thou" plus others but also because Melville's idiom was simply old fashioned - one of elegant and formal nineteenth century speech with uses of "fain", "durst" and other archaic words and phrases which more than once sent me to the dictionary for the precise meaning of what he was trying to say.
Melville doesn't tell a coherent story in the modern sense. Sometimes he writes in scenes with his characters on stage speaking lines. Other times he has his characters speak long soliloquies. He doesn't waste much time in description. He's more for mood and for drama. Occasionally he gets so carried away he writes nonsense. For example there's a passage (which I can't relocate as his is written) where Ahab is talking about the White Whale being a "mask" behind which something exists. But I never understood what that "something" was supposed to be. (Guess that was why it was "masked". Right?) Then there's another bit of nonsense where Melville goes on about "whiteness" and is arguing that the whiteness of the whale betokens evil. Be that as it may, it takes a lot of selling to convince the ordinary reader that the color white is anything other than the color of goodness charity and purity.
Whatever one might say about him as an author he's a master of drama and of mood and of the overpowering sense of doom with which this novel begins with the most famous opening line of secular literature - "Call me Ishmael" - and then continues on to describe the cold, the winter dark, the bleak watery New Bedford waterfront where Ishmael is seeking a berth and then meets Queequeg the tattooed Polynesian harpooner who worships a shrunken head and who is the opposite of Ishmael in things civilized but of the same mind in the hunt for the White Whale. Melville continues the spell as Ishmael and Queequeg prepare to leave New Bedford to find a ship in Nantucket, just 25 miles off shore, but then suddenly shines a light in the text in three chapters (Chapters 7, 8 and 9) where Ishmael attends a service in the Whale man's Chapel. Just before leaving for Nantucket.
Described here in these chapters is a chapel devoted to whales and the men who hunt them, with a pulpit - extending over and into the congregation like the prow of a ship - and Father Mapple, a retired whale man himself, who climbs into the pulpit on a rope ladder hung over the side and then, after pulling the ladder up behind him and isolated in the pulpit, delivers a sermon on Jonah and the whale. And in these three chapters Melville spells out his theme of obedience to God's commands, a belief in God that stands in contrast against the rest of the book which deals with evil and with a man (Ahab) who has taken it upon himself to act as God and who loses his life as the result. In these chapters Melville is being sincere, not telling a story; and, while the metaphor is powerful ,they deserve to be read carefully because they are central to the book.
Here in the chapel Ishmael has observed the many plates on the walls memorializing those who lost their lives whaling and he contemplates Life and Death. Yes, he says, there is danger in whaling but what "what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.... My body is but the lees of my better being In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me." He then looks at the pulpit and observes that to a man of God it is a "self containing stronghold...with a perennial supply of (spiritual) water within the walls." And then after a lovely Father Mapple climbs into the pulpit and delivers one of the most eloquent sermons I have ever read - about Jonah and the whale - in the story of which he finds that Jonah's repentance for his sins causes God to forgive him and send him up again from the belly of the whale -metamorphically a delivery from evil and death
I quote from the sermon because it is worth keeping in mind as Ahab, besotted with hate, sails onward to his doom.
"But what is this lesson that the Book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates...it a lesson to us all as sinful men...because it is a story of the sin... repentance, prayers and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah, As with all sinners among men this sin was in his (Jonah's) willful disobedience of that command of God. - Which he found a hard command, but all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do - remember that -...and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it's in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists."
(There is much more to the sermon than I have quoted here - and it is worth reading if for no other reason than to compare the truth of what is said to the tragic events of the next 450 pages.)
From New Bedford Ishmael and Queequeg sail to Nantucket where, after some spirited scenes with the ships two eccentric Quaker owners, they sign on the Pequod which sails on Christmas day on her fateful voyage, the story of which is told in the remaining 400 pages of the book which I urge you to read. They are simply too long and contain too many scenes, comments and asides on whaling to try to condense here.
While much of the book is story, a part larger than I would like is devoted to Melville telling us about whales and whaling circa 1821-51. You might want to skip this because whaling has changed so much that what Melville described is now irrelevant except for historical purposes.. All the glory of the whale hunt is gone. (If you aren't interested in whales and whaling as Melville tells it you can skip Chapters 24-25, 32-35, , 60, 65-80, 82-90.and 94-98, which will shorten the read for you by about 150 pages. But you may miss Melville's decription of how a whale was "rendered" - i.e. how the whale - often almost as large as the ship - was carved up and the oil taken out after capture)
Back to the question I raised on the first page of this write-up. Is this just a story? Or did Melville have something in mind when he wrote it - some greater allegorical purpose?. My answer to this question is that every reader will probably have and is entitled to his own opinion. There is no scholarly or popular agreement. It depends on how every reader reads the book; and by way of example take the jeweler who cuts a diamond. Everyone who looks at the finished piece sees it as a lovely jewel but everyone who looks at it may see different lights, different angles to it. So it is with this story. Everyone may view it as the masterpiece it is.
I would argue that if Melville meant to communicate some certain lesson, some definite moral, he could have done it more clearly. There are plenty of examples in literature when this has been done - think fables (The Fox and The Grapes); think parables (The Good Samaritan, The Beatitudes); or think novels (Uncle Tom's Cabin, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle) - but Melville didn't do it. He left this jewel for us to see in it what we will. And for me it was just the distinction between the oral lesson of Father Mapple - typically hard New England Congregational theology - and the madness of a man who defied it.