Ahoy there mateys! Though the first mate and I have very different reading tastes, occasionally we do recommend books to each other. Books the first mate introduced to me included xom-b, holes, and the perks of being a wallflower. Here I take a second look at a previously enjoyed novel and give me crew me second reflections, as it were, upon visitin’ it again.
The first mate and I talked about the book and I enjoyed his viewpoint so I
ordered asked him to write a review. The twist – I reread it (sort of) and the First Mate read it for the first time. Please note that I write like I talk and the first mate writes like he thinks. Hope ye enjoy!
From yer Captain:
This be one of the books I loved when I was a kid from reading the “good parts” version published by Moby Books Illustrated Classics. As I got older, I read the unabridged version and loved it. Many crew who read this book think it be boring and that the whaling sections go on forever. I adored it. I loved Queequeg, Captain Ahab’s insanity, and of course the fierce white whale.
I had been meaning to reread it for forever and there were some recent read-alongs that I wanted to participate in. That didn’t happen cause this year is goofy. Then the First Mate picked it up in a two-fer-one audiobook sale. He began listening to it, we began chatting about it, and so I downloaded it and began listening to it too.
I listened to the version narrated by Anthony Heald. I absolutely ADORED his pronunciation. I could listen to him say the words harpooner and innkeeper all day. One of the weird things that I didn’t really pick up on when I was younger is that Ishmael is, well, insane. As an adult I can’t really tell whether Ishmael is telling the truth about anything or if it just be a whale of tale.
Even though I adored the audiobook, I only listened up to the entrance of Captain Ahab. Me audiobook copy from the library expired, me mood shifted, and I can’t concentrate on audiobooks. I do intend to finish this audiobook at some point. I can’t wait to hear how Anthony Heald tells me the whaling parts. What I have listened to so far remains a five star read for me. Arrrr!
From the First Mate:
Going out on a rickety limb, I’m willing to argue that one’s overall enjoyment of Moby-Dick is going to correlate fairly well with one’s enjoyment of the following passage:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever 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. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”
This passage appears in the first chapter and is presented as our humble narrator’s reason for deciding to sign away the next three years of his life to spend at sea. It’s not the most dense passage, nor the one with the most esoteric references in the book. This passage is our narrator being as clear and as plain as he ever gets about why he’s going to do something. If one comes away from reading this passage with a “huh?” then there is no need to go any further; the book only becomes more obtuse. If, on the other hand, that passage makes your heart sing, the rest of the book is full of similarly dense, convoluted, beautiful prose.
I probably should have read Moby-Dick in college. We definitely covered Melville, reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” and the incomplete novella “Billy Budd, Sailor” both of which are well worth reading. Indeed, Melville touches on many of the themes explored in Moby-Dick in these other stories. Duty, honor, religion, iconoclasm, and homoeroticism all are present in those two other stories. Somehow I was forced to read The Sun Also Rises in four different classes, but we never got around to Moby-Dick.
The reality is that Moby-Dick is a complicated, dense, and uneven book that often takes quite a bit of work to understand what’s going on or what’s being discussed. Top level, yes, the popular perception is correct in that the main storyline of the novel is Captain Ahab’s quixotic vendetta against the eponymous white whale; modern references to which range from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan:
to The Simpsons (jump to 1:40):
And, yes, the vendetta certainly drives the plot of the novel, but Moby-Dick ultimately is about so much more. It’s a resoundingly queer novel (our humble narrator enters into a same sex marriage fairly early on, let alone the homoeroticism that permeates much of the crew’s interactions). It’s an examination of religion that, given the time in which it was written, borders on being blasphemous (Melville famously said, “I have written a wicked book, and I feel spotless as the lamb.”). It’s a novel that goes to great lengths to make an argument for nature conservation and even at points argues against the practice of whaling itself.
Most enjoyable to me, the first third of Moby-Dick is well worth reading because Ishmael is an amusingly unreliable narrator. From the very first line (“Call me Ishmael”) one gets the sense that our narrator has no intention of giving us his full story. As one reads, the inconsistencies in his tale build until one can take to viewing the entire tale of Moby-Dick as a fish tale that our narrator is spinning. At one point our narrator even tells a frame story, introducing it thus: “For my humor’s sake, I shall preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint’s eve, smoking upon the thick-gilt tiled piazza of the Golden Inn.” Our narrator is an admitted teller of tales, and there’s some fun to be had in pondering just how he’s twisting this revenge story and why.
Unfortunately Melville ultimately chose to mostly write our narrator out of the story around the time Captain Ahab appears on the scene. Ishmael recedes far into the background and in most plot-based chapters is rarely mentioned at all. Many later chapters are devoted to proceedings to which a lower ranked sailor like Ishmael wouldn’t be present. In more than a few of those later chapters the only characters present are the Captain and one of the mates; one of those chapters takes place in the Captain’s quarters and deals solely with the First Mate’s thoughts on whether or not to mutiny (what first mate would even consider such a thing?). It’s almost as though Melville’s designs or purpose for the novel shifted in the writing.
For being a dense and uneven novel, Moby-Dick ends up being a ferociously compelling one. Since I finished it, the world, the characters, and the language have not left my thoughts. Melville’s prose is often so sublime that it hurts (“Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.”) or succinctly encompasses a perspective that I might spend a thousand words fumbling to articulate (“Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Me thinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.”). My mind keeps returning to the question of what Melville’s intentions were with all of this, and I come away only with more questions.
I don’t think that I’d be able to recommend Moby-Dick to anyone without a long list of caveats. The biggest caveat, of course, being “you’ll probably be bored with this, not finish, and likely hate it.” I’m still surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. And the more I think about it, the more I enjoy it. Such a weird fish story.
Captain’s Side note: Did anyone else read those “good parts” Moby Books Illustrated Classics? I be currently trying to buy all of them because I only have a few. Willing to give me some in exchange for loot? Know where any be buried? Send me a treasure map!
Also check out this article on ten words coined by Melville. Arrr!
Goodreads has this to say about the book:
“It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.
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