Moby Dick is one of the most famous novels in the English language, and I think most people know the basic story – a gigantic white whale, a crazed Captain Ahab pursuing it, and ‘Call me Ishmael’. But it was still a different book than I was expecting. In a good way.
To be honest, I was expecting it to be boring, particularly as I’d been warned that most of the book is a series of digressions about whales and whaling practices. But, for the most part, I loved all the ‘digressions’. All the chapters about whale anatomy seem to be about trying to make whales knowable, tangible things. But it’s also constantly repeated that you can never see or understand a whale from its individual parts alone (such as the body of a whale being different from its skeleton), and at the same time you can’t understand a whale from its whole self – you can’t even draw it properly even if you’ve seen a live one at sea.
This knowable-unknowable contrast is partly about Ishmael trying to make sense of what happened – despite all this knowledge of whales and whaling, and all the strength and experience of those on board the Pequod, it made no difference in the end. But it’s also about Metaphor (I’m capitalising because everything in this damn book isn’t even trying to pretend not to be about something else). Whatever the White Whale represents to you as you read it, it is always both a knowable and unknowable thing.
I did begin to tire about 400ish pages in (I prefer shorter books), but a ‘digression’ would always come that pulled me back in. For example, chapter 89, “Fast Fish and Loose fish” describes a maritime law concerning which ship a whale belongs to, but then the final couple of paragraphs turns into a comment on countries, people and society as ‘fast-fish’ and ‘loose-fish’ in a “holy crap Melville, I thought I was bored but it turns out I was doing some deep thinking” sort of way.
I was also expecting it to be a Dead White Guy book – the kind that’s overtly racist and misogynistic but is excused because it’s ‘of its time’. There is discussion of race in Moby Dick, but it’s actually fairly forward-thinking for the late 1800s. It’s by no means perfect, with people referred to as ‘savages’ or by their race alone, but, generally, Moby Dick is about how the racism of white men, and colonialism/slavery, is a Bad Thing. When Ishmael first meets Queequeg, he’s afraid of him and his difference. But he quickly comes to see him as just a human person, and that Queequeg’s ‘odd’ religious beliefs are really no different than his own Christian beliefs. (I wished there was more of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship after the Pequod set sail. The beginning section between them was so good, but it seemed to be forgotten later on). The non-white characters have some of the most important jobs on the ship, and the white characters rely on them totally, but at the same time the non-white characters have to do the most dangerous jobs or are even literally walked over by the white characters (*metaphor alert*). The ship itself, the Pequod, is destroyed by the white whale, and is named after an American tribe that was killed off by the arrival of white men. (As I said earlier, everything in Moby Dick is a metaphor, often for three things at once).
Self-destruction is everywhere, often in really beautiful imagery, like Stubb eating a whale “by its own light” (a candle made of whale), and later the whale providing its own fuel to burn itself. And, obviously, everything about Ahab. It’s also full of revenge, religion, superstition, obsession, dictatorship, the environment, and the nature of humanity and the world we still live in. All the stuff, mostly in a series of seemingly irrelevant chapters.
In chapter 104, Ishmael (thinly disguised Melville), says “to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea”. I would disagree with Melville about that, but how he’s used a mighty whale to carry mighty themes is a book worth reading. It’s surprisingly readable, in part because of the very short chapters (usually only a couple of pages). But be warned – not long into reading this I started seeing whales and Moby Dick references everywhere. I have invoked a 70’s horror movie curse – “now the white whale is after YOU”. I think this is a good thing.