I have this list of Things I Really Ought To Have Read By Now. Great works of literature, institutions of popular culture, stories and characters we all know, allusions we all get, even if we haven't read the originals. Austen, Brontë, Chaucer. A Tale of Two Cities. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Odyssey. The stuff Great Books curricula and Warner Brothers cartoons are made of.
And every summer, I tackle a few. And here's my advice: Skip Moby Dick. Or if you feel you cannot skip it entirely, skip the first 200 pages or so. They're just not that important. Or if you really want to believe that it's a deep, symbolist novel that's really about the social struggle leading up to the American Civil War, go take some more drugs and read the Cliffs Notes.
First, here's what you'll miss, if you skip the first 200 pages. Ishmael is the narrator. He is like that shifty uncle no one likes to talk about, but who appears on the doorstep every 10 years or so, stays for a few months, and then leaves again for adventure and fortune, until adventure, fortune, and the generosity of other relatives are exhausted.
Ishmael has made his way to New England, intending to sign onto a whaling voyage, which entails sailing and hunting around the world, for a period of about three years. Most of the first 100 pages or so are spent in Boston commenting the darkness of the wood and the smokiness of the air in Ishmael's hotel. Here he meets Queequeg, with whom for reasons of space and economy, he ends up sharing a bed. Those hoping for a homoerotic, sailors-at-sea kind of interlude may be encouraged by Ishmael's copious descriptions of Queequeg's Savage Breast, his half-nakedness, and the supposed 'marriage' that occurs between. But alas, such people will be disappointed.
Advice: Skip Queequeg. Despite long lingering looks at his brown skin and tattoos, he does not embody any mysterious primal forces. He does not symbolize any unstated lusts either physical or vengeful. He's a harpooner, and whaling vessels need skilled harpooners. One might hope that he would occupy some Hideously Symbolic role in the story, or perform some Outrageously Meaningful act. He does not. This is left to one of the other harpooners. The closest he comes is when he builds himself a coffin, but it's mostly there to belabour the portents of death, rather than advance the story or symbolize anything.
Queequeg's primary activity in the story, besides being Savage and Naked, is being Pagan. Queequeg carries a little black idol whom he worships at regular intervals, at least in Boston. Much ink is spilled on this idol. Mostly on how black it is. Its primary purpose in the narrative is to provide something black for Ishmael to compare other things to--the night sky, the angry sea, the perilous storm, the skin of sundry harpooners and crewmen, and of course the odd mood or two. The whale, not being black, is not so compared. Nor is the lurid scar symbolizing Ahab's rage, nor his ivory leg symbolizing his vulnerability. So the idol mostly comes up at off-moments in the story.
Ishmael eventually signs on to the Pequod, Ahab's ship, for the full three-year hitch, for which he will receive something like one two-hundred-and-forty-seventh of one percent of the profits from the voyage. Ishmael's employers regard this as a ridiculously generous wage for a landlubber with no experience, so the reader is left to suppose it's quite a lot of money. On the other hand, it's an order of magnitude less than Ishmael spends the previous chapter planning to accept. One imagines Ishmael's relatives at this point hoping he goes overboard so they can have their guest room back for actual guests.
There are a few bits of reminiscence interspersed here and there, mostly as cultural background so you can understand how a whaling expedition is organized. There are also several remarkable essays, including Ishmael's three-chapter Taxonomy of Whales, which isn't based on any useful biological information, but on size, head shape, and quality of oil. There's also an aggravating (or perhaps charming) philosophical essay about whether or not whales are fish. According to Ishmael, they are. Noting that they bear live young, are warm blooded, and the bones that support their flippers and tail are long and jointed ke those of a mammalian hand or foot, they're fish. Apparently because the swim and have fins.
Advice: If you think this sort of thing is charming, and makes for a lively story, you spend a summer reading it and see if your friends are still speaking to you afterwards.
All of which is probably very meaningful in an encyclopedic account of whaling culture or a whaler-diarist's daily life. But Moby Dick is not presented as an anthropological treatise on whaling life in the 19th century. Rather, Ishmael appears to be sitting in a bar, telling the story in exchange for drinks. The story is interrupted at various times in the first third of the novel with side-anecdotes about the reactions of his various interlocutors, in bars around the world.
Advice: If you're ever in a bar telling a lively story in exchange for strangers buying you drinks, don't go on about your theory of whales, unless they're really drunk already.
So, around page 200 or so, the novel finally gets around to Ahab and the whale. Captain Ahab is an Aristotelean figure, in that his doom is a forgone conclusion due to his obsessive hatred of Moby Dick (the whale, although if he knew what kind of novel he was going to be wrapped up in...). In a previous expedition, Ahab was horribly maimed by Moby Dick. In addition to the fine ivory leg made from the jawbone of another slaughtered whale, Ahab has an awful scar on his face to remind him of the encounter. He appears, eventually, from wherever he was for the first several months of the journey, and begins to pace the decks, the brass tip of his artificial leg clicking ominously across the planks.
Early on, Ahab rouses his crew to the cause and places a symbolic gold coin in a hole he has worn in the deck of the vessel swivelling around on his ivory leg when not pacing. Or maybe he places it in a slot or something under the compass or the wheel or something. It's someplace people can go to gaze at it while they have interior monologues, which they seem to do a lot.
There are three other figures in the crew you need to know about.
The first is Young Pip, who is raised from poverty and made a gentleman by an anonymous benefactor. No wait, that's Great Expectations.
Advice: Don't get too attached to young Pip. Though he symbolizes youth and potential, if it were a WWII movie, he'd be that fresh, freckle-faced kid who gets blown up by a Nazi grenade in the first 10 minutes. He does make a rather mysterious, not to say confusing, return later as a ghost, the product of Ahab's growing dementia, but that's about all for Young Pip.
The second is Stubb, who symbolizes the human condition. He is the second mate, practical, experienced, wise, but taciturn. He observes, but does not judge. Much. He is primarily responsible for pointing out to us how obsessed Ahab is, in case we had forgotten, or how worried Starbuck, the first mate, is. He also, when actually hunting whales, is responsible for keeping up a constant, almost rap-like stream of exhortation to his crew which doesn't advance the story much because it doesn't consist of commands to do anything or observations about what's going on in the boat, but are more philosophical commentaries on how much danger they're in and how rich they're going to become, and how brave and strong everyone is. And how dead Young Pip is.
The third is Starbuck: he is regarded in literary circles as a Good Christian boy. He respects the whale as a creature created by God as he himself was created by God. And if God had not charged Starbuck with killing whales to make a Christian living, Starbuck would probably just as soon Live and Let Live, at least as far as whales are concerned.
Aside from inspiring aggressive coffee companies, Starbuck regards Ahab's obsession as dangerous to his ship and his crew. This causes Literary Tension between Captain Ahab and his first officer, and provides many opportunities for exploring each's perspectives via rhetorical devices like interior monologue. There doesn't seem to be a lot of conversation on Pequod.
I suppose the Starbuck-Ahab dyad reflects a contemporary moral dilemma between the dependence on the whale for its oil and the incredible cost, both to the whales and the whalers, of obtaining it, which or course reflects the modern moral dilemma between our dependence on natural resources and the results of our taking them. And I'm certain Melville meant for this relationship to reflect these things, because there's no other reason to add a hundred pages to a novel that is already too long by doing again and again and again and again.
Advice: If you want symbolic struggle between Man and Nature, go read Watership Down. At least the mammals aren't fish.
When not actively pursuing actual whales, much of the voyage is spent communicating with other whaling vessels. Given that this is pre-radio, this is done by bringing the two ships aside one another, someone is hoisted down to a boat, rows across to the other ship, and is hoisted up. These visits usually involve an exchange of information--where the whaling was good, what the weather was like, general news passed from one captain to another. Because of Ahab's obsession, these visits are usually reduced to some variation on the following theme:
Ahab: Have you seen Moby Dick?
Other: You mean that ghostly white whale?
Ahab: Yes, have you seen it?
To which the Other provides one of three possible responses:
- I think so, but it was years ago and in an ocean thousands of miles from here.
- No, but I heard from some other captain that some other captain he had spoken to had spotted him somewhere.
- Isn't Moby Dick just an old wives tale, like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster?
About Moby Dick. Despite the novel's subtitle ("The White Whale"), Ishmael makes it clear early on that Moby Dick is not white. That is, most whales are gray or otherwise animal-coloured. A white whale would be ghostly, an apparition, something bigger than life, an elemental force worthy of legend and 500 pages of ponderous symbolism. Moby Dick has some white spots, particularly on its head, and is thus relatively easy to recognize, should you be unfortunate enough to be close enough to see. But there is nothing ghostly or mysterious about it. It does, for undergrads looking for something to write a term paper on, have a scar from Ahab's harpoon on its face. Discuss the symbolism of facial scars in Moby Dick.
But the point is that Melville takes pains early on to make it clear that Moby Dick really is a whale, not some elemental force, and that Ahab is a raving loon. Hence the point of the whole novel unravels. Ahab is a whaler, and whalers get mained and killed by whales all the time. Young Pip being the prime example. Sad, yes. Tragic, yes. Part of the price you pay for the wealth of whale oil, definitely. So if Ahab had been maimed my some run-of-the-mill, mongrel whale, there'd be nothing to get obsessed about. But Ahab was maimed by a normal whale, not by some supernatural Whale Force. You want Starbuck, as he holds his interior monologues on how dangerous Ahab's obsession is, to just give him a good dope slap across the back of his head and tell him to get over it. Which is precisely what someone should have done to me when I proposed to read Moby Dick just because I ought to have done by now.
Somewhere in the middle of the novel there's a moderately exciting episode involving an actual whale hunt. It is preceded by a long discussion of ropes and spools and things. During the actual hunt, the men are almost killed by the rope (attached to the harpoon, attached eventually to the whale). Then in the following chapter, Melville/Ishmael says, essentially, 'actually, the reason the flying rope was so dangerous is because there is a second harpoon attached to it that I forgot to tell you about.'
What the book needs is a good editor. Or a hot flame.
The last 30 pages or so are actually pretty exciting, comprising as they do a Great Three Day Chase when they're actually after Moby Dick. In the end, the ship sinks and everybody goes down, with a harpooner who isn't Queequeg hammering a flag to the tallest mast even as he is claimed by the unforgiving sea. Ishmael survives because at some point in the middle, he's thrown from his boat and is eventually rescued by a passing vessel. So how exactly he is able to relate how everybody gets killed isn't clear, since he's floating around somewhere else when it happens.
So to sum up:
- Melville is a frustrating story-teller, to say the least.
- Ishmael. He's not underdescribed or omniscient. He's a very specific guy in a very specific time and place.
- Ahab. He's an obsessed lunatic who should have been put off the ship by the crew early on.
- Starbuck. He worries a lot about whether he's going to make it back to his wife and child. If he had any heroic qualities he would have tossed Ahab overboard before everybody got killed.
- Everybody dies. This is required of tragedy. Well, Ishmael survives, but by the end you really wish he hadn't.
- It's not about 19th century whaling culture, since there's nothing normal or representative about the Pequod. There's no actual whaling culture in the novel that couldn't have been told in 400 fewer page with a better story.
- It's not about slavery and abolition and the turmoil leading up to the American Civil War. It's not an allegory for any instance of obsession and ruin, except insofar as any novel about obsession and ruin is an allegory for any actual obsession and ruin.
SLAP Get over it.