According to Wikipedia, Herman Melville wrote to his publisher that he was working on “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.” That book was Moby Dick, based on a real whale named Mocha Dick.
Unfortunately, the book did not do well during Melville’s life time. Interest in it was renewed at the centennial of his birth, with many then praising it.
One of literature’s most famous opening lines, “Call me Ishmael,” may indicate that Ismael is not his real name. On the other hand, most of the characters go by one name, first or last, so maybe Ishmael sets the precedent right off the bat. Ishmael is not a full-time seaman. He is a schoolmaster who gets a hankering to go out to sea sometimes when land life gets too much for him. He’s a loquacious narrator, telling minute details of the story, giving several examples of a concept, and going into teacher mode to describe whaling practices, features of the whale, whales depicted in art and why the artists get them wrong, etc. etc.
Ishmael starts off making his way to Nantucket to look for a sailing vessel. He explains that instead of going to sea as a passenger who has to pay, he goes as sailor who gets paid for the voyage. The inns are crowded, so he has to share not only a room, but a bed with a stranger. He’s mortified to discover in the middle of the night that his bedmate is a cannibal, Queequeg. But eventually the two become fast friends.
They are hired for the Pequod, a whaling vessel, by the owners. They don’t meet the captain yet, as he is recovering from an illness.
Even before they set sail, foreshadowings abound that something dire might happen. The preacher in Nantucket gives a sermon about Jonah and a strange man calling himself Elijah gives cryptic warnings.
The sailors meet the three mates with vastly different personalities. Starbuck, the first mate, is 30, thin, serious, pious, a bit superstitious, courageous but not foolish. The second mate, Stubb, was “happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests.” It was quite funny to hear how Stubb both scolded and encouraged his crewmen when they were in the thick of capturing a whale. The third mate, Flask, was “short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.”
We don’t see Captain Ahab until chapter 28. He’s described as grim with grey hair and a scar down one side of his face. He had lost one leg and replaced it with a prosthesis made of whale bone. Later he tells the crew that he had lost his leg in a battle with a legendary white whale named Moby Dick, and his main mission is finding and exacting his revenge on the whale.
As the Pequod meets up with other boats (which meetings are called gams), Ahab has no interest in chatting with the other captains about anything except whether they’ve seen Moby Dick.
If you’re at all familiar with the story, you know the voyage doesn’t end well.
Ahab’s mission is more of an obsession. Though Starbuck tries to talk Ahab out of his vengeance, Ahab won’t listen.
When Melville is telling the story, it’s as exciting, riveting, and hard to put down as anything I’ve ever read. But interspersed between story incidents are detailed explanations and Ismael’s thoughts about everything that could possibly be connected with whales and whaling. Wikipedia cites various theories about the reasons behind the book’s layout. Some of these side excursions are interesting, some boring. With some, you wonder if the narrator is writing tongue in cheek, like when he posits that perhaps St. George’s dragon was actually a whale. He wonders what the stuff the whale spouts is made up of and muses:
He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.
When he comments that pirates think themselves above whalers:
I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.
Ishmael comments on his own storytelling:
So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.
Like a lot of older books, this one has some Christian overtones. But I wouldn’t call it a Christian book. Ismael calls himself a Presbyterian, but I disagreed with Ishmael when he felt that joining in with Queequeg’s worship of a little idol he carried around with him was doing unto his neighbor as he would want his neighbor to do to him—not with all that the Bible says about idols. Starbuck is probably the closest to a genuine Christian. Ahab is full-out blasphemous.
I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Frank Muller. When the narration first started, I was disappointed Muller didn’t give Ishmael and craggy old sea-dog kind of a voice. But then I quickly realized that voice would not have been right for Ishmael as an educated man who was not a full-time sailor. Muller does give that kind of voice to Ahab, though, to great effect. Muller did all the voices and inflections well, and I am thankful I experienced the book with this narration. I also read some parts online via Project Gutenberg here.
I read (or listened to) Moby Dick for the Back to the Classics Challenge category of a “Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia).” Moby Dick covers a lot of territory—in fact a beautifully illustrated map is here. But a great chunk of the plot takes place in the waters between those continents.