When I added Moby Dick to my 2011 reading list, I had no idea just how much work it would be to read. And it really did feel like work. While a fascinating book, it is not an easy read. The language is heavy. The imagery is layered. The detail and description lead to information overload.
But it is a beautiful novel. And that is despite the fact that the whole goal of the main characters is to hunt down and kill a whale, which is not exactly endearing.
Moby Dick is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, on his first whaling voyage. He sails aboard the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that there is something not altogether right about Ahab. He is scarcely seen by the crew, and not at all before they leave port. He is gruff and reclusive. He wears an ivory leg to replace the limb that was bitten off when he was attacked by the ferocious white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Ahab’s voyage is funded under the pretence of being a whaling voyage, but he soon reveals his real plan: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, and have his revenge.
But if this was really just a book about killing a whale, I would never have read it. It was so much more. In writing Moby Dick, Melville uses an odd mix of metaphor, symbolism, stage directions, soliloquies and more to tell the story, while examining concepts of good and evil, class, social status, race and sexuality (among other references I probably missed). This was a book you had to read slowly to really see what he was trying to say, and you would have to read it numerous times to get all that you could out of it. I am not sure I have that in me.
Favourite chapters/moments include: Ishmael meeting and sharing a bed with Queequeg; Ahab making the sailors swear an oath to kill the whale; the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, following the oath; “The Whiteness of the Whale” – beautiful yet ominous; the personal stories of the carpenter and the blackmith; and of course the dramatic ending.
Moby Dick was an amazing read, and an intense and thrilling story. Well worth the investment of time if you are feeling ambitious.
The novel is full of famous and not so famous quotes, many of which honestly left me breathless. I would love to list them all here for you, but will leave you with one:
“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”
Paperback: 656 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press
First Published: 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London