Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
In the end I yielded to grudging admiration for Herman Melville's complex, bizarre novel, Moby-Dick, or, the White Whale, first published in 1851. Melville in his youth was a sailor on several whaling ships, in the U.S. Navy, and in the merchant marine; in his novel, the nuts and bolts of whaling appear completely convincing. The plot of Moby-Dick is slight, but is padded, by philosophical musings and natural history information, into more than 700 pages. The fictional technique seems to be to describe ordinary events at sea and then conjoin each event with every biblical, literary, and philosophical association that Melville could muster.
Yet, two of Melville's characters are so vivid that virtually everyone knows who they are: the peg-legged Captain Ahab, who obsessively hunts Moby Dick; and Moby Dick, the vicious whale who had mutilated Ahab. In Melville: His World and Work (2005), Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco writes, "In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose."
I found the novel's beginning to be unpromising. In an interminable sequence, the narrator ("Call me Ishmael") travels from Manhattan to New Bedford, stays at the Spouter-Inn, meets Queequeg the "cannibal," goes to church for an interminable sermon, takes a ferry to Nantucket, and at last (page 104 in my edition) encounters the Pequod, the vessel on which he and Queequeg will ship. Anchor is up at page 145, which Melville takes as a cue to discuss whaling in the abstract. I nearly bailed at page 42.
Once on board ship, the novel's point of view changes from first person to omniscient: The thoughts and viewpoints of a multitude of characters are described, things that a first-person narrator could never know. Ishmael / Melville, as narrator, never disappears, however, but instead inserts a profusion of essays of philosophy and natural history. Perhaps Ishmael has written a novel about his voyage; or Ishmael is simply an avatar of Melville; or the novel is a stream of consciousness precursor of modernism, as Delbanco says; or Melville was just careless or goofy.
Then something happened to me: Chapter 41 (page 239), titled "Moby Dick." I was fascinated. Ishmael recounts the rumors and sailor's stories about the white whale Moby Dick, and tells the backstory of Ahab's injury, delirium, and resulting sick obsession. I bought it completely. Imagine a New Yorker article about an urban legend and one man's reason for pursuing it; only in the most elevated language possible, making it seem important; making it seem a genuine literary masterpiece.
And so I was drawn in, and engulfed. The myriad characters, the biblical allusions, the Shakespearean soliloquies, the stage directions, the rambling. The whales, the blubber, the oil, the sharks. The tedium of the sea punctuated by discourse with other ships, including the strange story of the mutiny on the whaler Town-Ho. The St. Elmo's fire ("corpusants"), the "spirit-spouts," the prophecies. The discussions on good and evil, God and Satan, life and death. And in the end--when the Pequod and Moby Dick meet in the inevitable final encounter--it somehow all made sense.
Reader's Advisory: I recommend reading Two Years Before the Mast first. It explains how sailors live and work on a sailing ship, information that Melville assumes you already know. In the Heart of the Sea, a history book about the whaling incident that inspired Melville, places Moby-Dick into historical context. It also describes Nantucket Islanders, their character and speech, which Melville also assumes you are familiar with.
Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro