It’s the nature of a good adventure novel to inspire courage and a sense of wonder in the reader. When it came to Herman Melville’s epic, a few short chapters was all it took for me to develop a yearning for the majestic open ocean. The story follows (and is narrated by) the adventure-seeking Ishmael, a seafaring man who wants to experience the unparalleled dangers and thrills of life on a whaling boat. Early on, Ishmael meets Queequeg, an immense and sometimes amusing Polynesian fellow with plenty of whaling experience and skill. The two become friends and plan to seek work together on the first suitable whaling vessel they can find. They travel to Nantucket in search of a good ship, and here the author digresses and tells the tale of the island of Nantucket itself. Despite a series of ominous signs and encounters, Ishmael is determined to sail. He and Queequeg find a boat called the Pequod, and make arrangements for their employment with the boat’s owners. We learn here that the Pequod is captained by a man named Ahab, who has been acting strangely ever since he lost his leg in a clash with the infamous white whale, Moby-Dick. The sailors board the boat and it leaves the safety of the port for the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.
Ahab remains hidden below deck for some time at the beginning of the Pequod’s voyage. Melville uses this lull in the story to devote a chapter to the nobility and usefulness of whaling, and then another to the superiority of whale oil. We then return to the story and are introduced to some of the Pequod’s crew. Finally, Ahab appears on deck and we see that he is as unbalanced as rumours suggested. He is somewhat of a dictator on the boat, but one that can inspire loyalty—even foolhardy and fatal loyalty. We leave the story yet again, this time for a scientific classification of various whales, and then a look at the whaling industry and the role of captains. We return for a brief insight into the pecking order on the Pequod, and then the author is off on another tangent, answering the reader’s unasked question: What kind of facilities do different ships have at the top of their masts? Back on board the Pequod, Ahab rallies his troops and reveals his sole purpose for the voyage: to hunt down and kill Moby-Dick. Such is the captain’s commanding nature, the crew pledges allegiance to him and his quest, despite its inherent danger and the fact they signed up to profit from whales, not take revenge on one.
The story continues and we learn of Ahab’s previous encounter with the white whale, and how he survived. Then Melville goes on about how the colour white, while usually used to represent goodness and purity, is actually horrid and terrifying. We learn some of Moby-Dick’s habits, which may be helpful in locating him, but then we have to listen to stories of what harm other whales have been known to cause—whales not relative to this story. From there the book makes slow but tantalising progress: the first whales are sighted, the first attempt at harpooning a whale is made, mysterious extra crew members are revealed and there is an encounter with another whaling vessel. Finally it feels like we’re getting somewhere. At this point, as though part of some cruel practical joke, the book departs from the plot into whole chapters about depictions of whales in art. At this point also I threw the book away.
I am a patient reader. I have persisted through long-winded passages of novels to get to the end. I have indulged authors’ lengthy and unnecessary musings, because they were good writers, and because they were only making a detour on the way to a conclusion. But the kind of shenanigans Herman Melville was dishing up is simply unacceptable. I confess, at times my frustration has got the better of me and I have had to put a book back on the shelf to finish at a later date. With Moby-Dick however, shelving the book was not an option. I had to throw it away; I had to send Herman Melville a message. A story must have an ending, and it is the author’s job to get to it. If you’re going to write about types of whales, and crow’s nests, and whale oil, and the colour white, and paintings of whales—fine, make that the introduction to the book. Or put it as an appendix. Heck, collect all your whale facts and philosophies together and turn them into a separate volume. You could sell both books together at a discount. What you can’t do is keep interrupting a story to voice your opinions and show off your knowledge of the subject matter. Just tell the story.
Moby-Dickis a captivating tale—when it’s being told. I liked the beginning and I assume the end is just as good. I’ll never know. 5/10
© 2018 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED