My college German teacher, on one of his random tangents, once told us that we shouldn't read Moby Dick (1851) until we were in our thirties. I forget his exact reasoning, but Moby Dick is definitely a book that requires patience. Although there is tragedy, excitement, and death at every turn, there is much more quiet contemplation of the world, whales, and the sea.
I wasn't even planning on reading Moby Dick. I picked up the book in desperation one night when I couldn't sleep, thinking it would put me to sleep. I've read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, which I loved, so I knew some of the background., but I was still surprised to find it actually readable, relatable, and sometimes even funny.
On the first page, Ishmael describes his need to be out on the ocean: "[W]henever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." (3)
So I continued. I fear, though, that I did not do this giant of Classical literature justice. I managed to get about halfway through before feeling bogged down, distracting myself for months with other books, and coming completely away from Melville's world, before forcing myself to buckle down and "get 'er done."
I'm pretty sure the basics of the plot are familiar to almost everyone. Ishmael, our narrator, is a sailor on the Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod. The ship's Captain Ahab has lost his leg to an aggressive, giant, white Sperm Whale and he is mad with his need for revenge. The story revolves around the Pequod's adventures as they sail for years around the world's oceans, searching for the vicious white whale. Ishmael also goes into great detail on every aspect of the different whales, as well as in-depth explanations of every aspect of whaling. There are also deep insights into human existence, and an abundance of creepy foreshadowing of the doom of the Pequod's crew. The inexorable march towards their final days is especially haunting.
If I were stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book, Moby Dick would at least be one of the front runners. There is so much going on that one could read and ponder it for years without getting bored. I can barely scratch the surface here, but in the interests of brevity I will simply address two things that caught my attention.
First, Melville is something of a master at linking whaling to truths about life. Over and over again, the entire book is peppered with insightful connections:
"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side." (306)
The second aspect of Moby Dick that struck me was Ishmael's (and probably Melville's) attitude towards the whale. As something of an animal lover who would rather not glory in the suffering of any living thing, I sometimes had a hard time with the killing scenes. But Melville also appeared to have great respect and sympathy for the whale. Chapter after chapter is dedicated to the historical and physical importance and majesty of the great whale. Although later in the book, Ishmael states that whales cannot be hunted to decimation like the American Buffalo, there are passages that tend to decry the savagery of the whale hunt:
"As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all." (391)
"The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter, was the first whaleman; and to the eternal honor of our calling be it said, that the first whale attacked by our brotherhood was not killed with any sordid intent. Those were the knightly days of our profession, when we only bore arms to succor the distressed, and not to fill men's lampfeeders." (395)
It was long, and at times it was frustratingly slow, but I'm glad I read it. There's so much to it; it's one of the few that I think I might revisit in the future.