Moby-Dick (Book Review)

Title: Moby-Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Publication Date: 1851 (book), 2005 (audio)
Publisher: Naxos AudioBooks
Narrated By: William Hootkins
Recording time: 24 hours, 49 minutes

THE PLOT

The idea of writing a plot summary for Moby-Dick is too daunting. However, after reading a few attempts from others, I like the one provided by wikipedia:

Ishmael travels in December from Manhattan Island to New Bedford, Massachusetts, with plans to sign up for a whaling voyage. The inn where he arrives is overcrowded, so he must share a bed with the tattooed cannibal Polynesian Queequeg, a harpooneer whose father was king of the fictional island of Rokovoko. The next morning, Ishmael and Queequeg attend Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah, then head for Nantucket. Ishmael signs up with the Quaker ship-owners Bildad and Peleg for a voyage on their whaler Pequod. Peleg describes Captain Ahab as “a grand, ungodly, god-like man” who “has his humanities”. They hire Queequeg the following morning. A man named Elijah prophesies a dire fate should Ishmael and Queequeg join Ahab. While provisions are loaded, shadowy figures board the ship. On a cold Christmas Day, the Pequod leaves the harbor.

Ishmael discusses cetology (the zoological classification and natural history of the whale), and describes the crew members. The chief mate is 30-year-old Starbuck, a Nantucket Quaker with a realist mentality, whose harpooneer is Queequeg; second mate is Stubb, from Cape Cod, happy-go-lucky and cheerful, whose harpooneer is Tashtego, a proud, pure-blooded Native American from Gay Head; and the third mate is Flask, also from Martha’s Vineyard, short, stout, whose harpooneer is Daggoo, a tall African, now a resident of Nantucket.

When Ahab finally appears on the quarterdeck, he announces he is out for revenge on the white whale which took one leg from the knee down and left him with a prosthesis fashioned from a whale’s jawbone. Ahab will give the first man to sight Moby Dick a doubloon, a gold coin, which he nails to the mast. Starbuck objects that he has not come for vengeance but for profit. Ahab’s purpose exercises a mysterious spell on Ishmael: “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine”. Instead of rounding Cape Horn, Ahab heads for the equatorial Pacific Ocean via southern Africa. One afternoon, as Ishmael and Queequeg are weaving a mat—”its warp seemed necessity, his hand free will, and Queequeg’s sword chance”—Tashtego sights a sperm whale. Five previously unknown men appear on deck and are revealed to be a special crew selected by Ahab and explain the shadowy figures seen boarding the ship. Their leader, Fedallah, a Parsee, is Ahab’s harpooneer. The pursuit is unsuccessful.

Southeast of the Cape of Good Hope, the Pequod makes the first of nine sea-encounters, or “gams”, with other ships: Ahab hails the Goney (Albatross) to ask whether they have seen the White Whale, but the trumpet through which her captain tries to speak falls into the sea before he can answer. Ishmael explains that because of Ahab’s absorption with Moby Dick, he sails on without the customary “gam”, which Ishmael defines as a “social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships”, in which the two captains remain on one ship and the chief mates on the other. In the second gam off the Cape of Good Hope, with the Town-Ho, a Nantucket whaler, the concealed story of a “judgment of God” is revealed, but only to the crew: a defiant sailor who struck an oppressive officer is flogged, and when that officer led the chase for Moby Dick, he fell from the boat and was killed by the whale.

Ishmael digresses on pictures of whales, brit (microscopic sea creatures on which whales feed), squid and—after four boats are lowered in vain because Daggoo mistook a giant squid for the white whale—whale-lines. The next day, in the Indian Ocean, Stubb kills a sperm whale, and that night Fleece, the Pequod‘s black cook, prepares him a rare whale steak. Fleece, at Stubb’s request, delivers a sermon to the sharks that fight each other to feast on the whale’s carcass, tied to the ship, saying that their nature is to be voracious, but they must overcome it. The whale is prepared, beheaded, and barrels of oil are tried out. Standing at the head of the whale, Ahab begs it to speak of the depths of the sea. The Pequod next encounters the Jeroboam, which not only lost its chief mate to Moby Dick, but also is now plagued by an epidemic.

The whale carcass still lies in the water. Queequeg mounts it, tied to Ishmael’s belt by a monkey-rope as if they were Siamese twins. Stubb and Flask kill a right whale whose head is fastened to a yardarm opposite the sperm whale’s head. Ishmael compares the two heads in a philosophical way: the right whale is Lockean, stoic, and the sperm whale is Kantean, platonic. Tashtego cuts into the head of the sperm whale and retrieves buckets of spermaceti. He falls into the head, which in turn falls off the yardarm into the sea. Queequeg dives after him and frees his mate with his sword.

The Pequod next gams with the Jungfrau from Bremen. Both ships sight whales simultaneously, with the Pequod winning the contest. The three harpooneers dart their harpoons, and Flask delivers the mortal strike with a lance. The carcass sinks, and Queequeg barely manages to escape. The Pequod‘s next gam is with the French whaler Bouton de Rose, whose crew is ignorant of the ambergris in the gut of the diseased whale in their possession. Stubb talks them out of it, but Ahab orders him away before he can recover more than a few handfuls. Days later, Pip, a little African American cabin-boy, jumps in panic from Stubb’s whale boat and the whale must be cut loose because Pip is entangled in the line; a few days later Pip jumps in panic again, and is left alone in the sea and has gone insane by the time he is picked up.

Cooled spermaceti congeals and must be squeezed back into liquid state; blubber is boiled in the try-pots on deck; the warm oil is decanted into casks, and then stowed in the ship. After the operation, the decks are scrubbed. The coin hammered to the main mast shows three Andes summits, one with a flame, one with a tower, and one a crowing cock. Ahab stops to look at the doubloon and interprets the coin as signs of his firmness, volcanic energy, and victory; Starbuck takes the high peaks as evidence of the Trinity; Stubb focuses on the zodiacal arch over the mountains; and Flask sees nothing of any symbolic value at all. The Manxman mutters in front of the mast, and Pip declines the verb “look”.

The Pequod next gams with the Samuel Enderby of London, captained by Boomer, a down-to-earth fellow who lost his right arm to Moby Dick. Nevertheless, he carries no ill will toward the whale, which he regards not as malicious, but as awkward. Ahab puts an end to the gam by rushing back to his ship. The narrator now discusses the subjects of (1) whalers supply; (2) a glen in Tranque in the Arsacides islands full of carved whale bones, fossil whales, whale skeleton measurements; (3) the chance that the magnitude of the whale will diminish and that the leviathan might perish.

Leaving the Samuel Enderby, Ahab wrenches his ivory leg and orders the carpenter to fashion him another. Starbuck informs Ahab of oil leakage in the hold. Reluctantly, Ahab orders the harpooneers to inspect the casks. Queequeg, sweating all day below decks, develops a chill and soon is almost mortally feverish. The carpenter makes a coffin for Queequeg, who fears an ordinary burial at sea. Queequeg tries it for size, with Pip sobbing and beating his tambourine, standing by and calling himself a coward while he praises Queequeg for his gameness. Yet Queequeg suddenly rallies, briefly convalesces, and leaps up, back in good health. Henceforth, he uses his coffin for a spare seachest, which is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod‘s life buoy.

The Pequod sails northeast toward Formosa and into the Pacific Ocean. Ahab, with one nostril, smells the musk from the Bashee isles, and with the other, the salt of the waters where Moby Dick swims. Ahab goes to Perth, the blacksmith, with a bag of racehorse shoenail stubs to be forged into the shank of a special harpoon, and with his razors for Perth to melt and fashion into a harpoon barb. Ahab tempers the barb in blood from Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo.

The Pequod gams next with the Bachelor, a Nantucket ship heading home full of sperm oil. Every now and then, the Pequod lowers for whales with success. On one of those nights in the whaleboat, Fedallah prophesies that neither hearse nor coffin can be Ahab’s, that before he dies, Ahab must see two hearses — one not made by mortal hands and the other made of American wood — that Fedallah will precede his captain in death, and finally that only hemp can kill Ahab.

As the Pequod approaches the Equator, Ahab scolds his quadrant for telling him only where he is and not where he will be. He dashes it to the deck. That evening, an impressive typhoon attacks the ship. Lightning strikes the mast, setting the doubloon and Ahab’s harpoon aglow. Ahab delivers a speech on the spirit of fire, seeing the lightning as a portent of Moby Dick. Starbuck sees the lightning as a warning, and feels tempted to shoot the sleeping Ahab with a musket. The next morning, when he finds that the lightning disoriented the compass, Ahab makes a new one out of a lance, a maul, and a sailmaker’s needle. He orders the log be heaved, but the weathered line snaps, leaving the ship with no way to fix its location.

The Pequod is now heading southeast toward Moby Dick. A man falls overboard from the mast. The life buoy is thrown, but both sink. Now Queequeg proposes that his superfluous coffin be used as a new life buoy. Starbuck orders the carpenter to seal and waterproof it. The next morning, the ship meets in another truncated gam with the Rachel, commanded by Captain Gardiner from Nantucket. The Rachel is seeking survivors from one of her whaleboats which had gone after Moby Dick. Among the missing is Gardiner’s young son. Ahab refuses to join the search.

Twenty-four hours a day, Ahab now stands and walks the deck, while Fedallah shadows him. Suddenly, a sea hawk grabs Ahab’s slouched hat and flies off with it. Next, the Pequod, in a ninth and final gam, meets the Delight, badly damaged and with five of her crew left dead by Moby Dick. Her captain shouts that the harpoon which can kill the white whale has yet to be forged, but Ahab flourishes his special lance and once more orders the ship forward. Ahab shares a moment of contemplation with Starbuck. Ahab speaks about his wife and child, calls himself a fool for spending 40 years on whaling, and claims he can see his own child in Starbuck’s eye. Starbuck tries to persuade Ahab to return to Nantucket to meet both their families, but Ahab simply crosses the deck and stands near Fedallah.

On the first day of the chase, Ahab smells the whale, climbs the mast, and sights Moby Dick. He claims the doubloon for himself, and orders all boats to lower except for Starbuck’s. The whale bites Ahab’s boat in two, tosses the captain out of it, and scatters the crew. On the second day of the chase, Ahab leaves Starbuck in charge of the Pequod. Moby Dick smashes the three boats that seek him into splinters and tangles their lines. Ahab is rescued, but his ivory leg and Fedallah are lost. Starbuck begs Ahab to desist, but Ahab vows to slay the white whale, even if he would have to dive through the globe itself to get his revenge.

On the third day of the chase, Ahab sights Moby Dick at noon, and sharks appear, as well. Ahab lowers his boat for a final time, leaving Starbuck again on board. Moby Dick breaches and destroys two boats. Fedallah’s corpse, still entangled in the fouled lines, is lashed to the whale’s back, so Moby Dick turns out to be the hearse Fedallah prophesied.

“Possessed by all the fallen angels”, Ahab plants his harpoon in the whale’s flank. Moby Dick smites the whaleboat, tossing its men into the sea. Only Ishmael is unable to return to the boat. He is left behind in the sea, and so is the only crewman of the Pequod to survive the final encounter. The whale now fatally attacks the Pequod. Ahab then realizes that the destroyed ship is the hearse made of American wood in Fedallah’s prophecy.

Moby Dick returns “within a few yards of Ahab’s boat,” a harpoon is darted, the line gets tangled, and Ahab stoops to free it. In doing so the line loops around Ahab’s neck, and as the stricken whale swims away, the captain is drawn with him out of sight. Queequeg’s coffin comes to the surface, the only thing to escape the vortex when Pequod sank. For a day and a night, Ishmael floats on it, until the Rachel, still looking for its lost seamen, rescues him.

MY REVIEW:

Reading a classic novel, particularly an old classic, generally includes a significant amount of work with the hope of a reward at the end. Moby-Dick is without question a novel that requires intellectual effort from its readers. However, to my surprise, I enjoyed this novel from the beginning.

I listened to an audio recording performed by the late actor William Hootkins. If you want to take on the challenge of Herman Melville’s classic novel, but you are hesitant to begin the attempt, I cannot recommend enough trying it with this audio reading. I found myself laughing at the novel’s narrator Ishmael, in the places where Melville intended for him to be funny. The fact that someone else was carrying the heft of the story’s encyclopedic tangents on whaling and the like gave me the additional capacity to appreciate the story’s personality and humor.

You might best know William Hootkins as the guy who tells Indiana Jones that “top men” will take care of the Ark of the Covenant.

The other reason that I enjoyed the novel from its earliest pages is that I quickly decided that I liked both the young Ishmael and the narrator Ishmael. In a particularly funny sequence, before he boards the whaling ship, Ishmael meets a cannibal harpooneer named Queequeg. Ishmael is initially terrified of the other man, but quickly becomes so friendly with him that he subsequently describes the two of them as being “married.” The turning point in their relationship occurred when a sleeping Queequeg hugged the narrator as they awkwardly shared a bed in their overcrowded inn’s room. Ishmael both as a character and narrator is neurotic and manic, but those traits are endearing as his outlook is positive and his character is good and likeable. If you find that you like Ishmael early on, as I did, then the chapters where he describes whales and whaling in absurd detail are humorous. I thought so, at least. It was a great help for me, in liking Ishmael, to hear the William Hootkins audio performance.

Structure:

The novel itself – particularly its narration style – is interesting by any standard. Ishmael tells the story of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick in the first person, and in the style of a memoir. Within that basic framework, though, Ishmael occasionally delivers fiery sermons, travel accounts, soliloquies, academic readings, poems, plays, and other styles as well.

The chapter structure of the book is also quite unique. They range in duration from a couple of pages to quite lengthy. The explanation for this lies in part with the – for lack of a better word – tangents upon which Ishmael goes. A chapter on the culture of a particular place nearby, or whale paintings, might be short because there is little to say on a particularly fine point of that subject. (There were a few chapters on whale paintings and depictions.) Other chapters though require more verbosity.

Generally, Moby-Dick is a series of sequences. The beginning chapters place Ishmael on The Pequod. The middle section of the novel is a depiction of a whaler’s life – with the aforementioned chapter long side-tangents on specific issues. The end sequence involves the chase for Moby-Dick.

If that is not complicated enough, though, you can also craft the novel’s structure around The Pequod‘s nine meetings (“gams”) with other whaling vessels. The whaers share their encounters with the white whale and their stories become increasingly violent and dangerous. As a result, the novel is imbued with a growing sense of threat and danger as the crew closes in on its target.

One other structural issue of the novel that should be pointed out is that in its latter half, there is an increasing sense of Captain Ahab serving as the narrator, with Ishmael reclaiming the role from him to go on side tangents and digressions. This is accomplished by the true narrator, Ishmael, through the providing of lengthy and increasingly frequent monologues from the crazed Ahab. This narration change mirrors the actual story as Ishmael, along with the rest of the crew, feels himself being subsumed and taken over by Ahab’s desire for revenge.

Themes:

Race:

The cast of characters on The Pequod seem to include men from almost everywhere (white Americans, a Native American, an African-American, an African, a Pacific Islander, etc.) and the ship itself operates along meritocratic lines, rather than racial ones. Frequently, the story is told with little regard for racial division at all. We see a close intimate friendship between between Ishmael and Queequeg. We also see a close and intimate relationship, late in the novel, between Ahab and Pip (a freed slave who loses his mind aboard the ship.)

At one point early on, Ishmael asks the reader (paraphrasing) “Who isn’t a slave” before going on a diatribe about how everyone is beholden to, and subjugated by, someone else, in some way. This creates the impression that Ishmael views himself as no different, and no better, than anyone else. Ishmael’s name is itself a tribute to this notion, as it is a reference to the son of Abraham by his slave, Hagar. It is not clear that this is the narrator’s real name as the novel begins by him asking us to call him by that name.

All of the foregoing said, Moby-Dick is not racially utopian. The novel includes racial division. The captain and his highest ranking crew are all white. The harpooneers, and many of the lower ranked crew members, are people of color. This distinction ends up feeling somewhat absurd as it is clear the men on the vessel – Ishmael in particular – place no weight in racial division.

What then is the point Melville is trying to convey? I think the novel is intended as a challenge to those who divide humanity along racial lines and with racial biases. Melville does not pretend that those lines are not present, but he does not place much weight in them. Moby-Dick states that men are men and that there is little meaning to be found in the differences of skin hue. If one keeps in mind that this novel was published in the United States, in 1851, this message was certainly politically charged.

Religion:

From Ishmael’s first meeting with Queequeg, and then throughout the novel thereafter, Melville seems to reject much of the division of humanity that occurs along religious lines as well. Often the “pagans” aboard the ship are presented in noble terms. Ishmael himself seems to settle on a somewhat relativistic view regarding religion, embracing a tone which accepts an individual’s religious conviction without regard for where that conviction is directed. He ends up respecting the pagan beliefs AND the Christian beliefs of his fellow shipmates.

The novel has as part of its undercurrent, though, a religious condemnation of Ahab. The Captain’s name, like Ishmael, is taken from the Bible. King Ahab, of ancient Israel, was among their people’s most wicked kings. He is depicted as being under the evil influence of his wife Jezebel. Captain Ahab could and probably should be viewed as an evil figure whose selfish decision-making leads to the deaths of almost his entire crew. He was under the evil influence of his own desire. Instead of a desire for his wife, Melville’s Ahab desires revenge against Moby-Dick. Occasionally, Ahab would display an awareness of the fact that his desire is evil. Late in the novel, he seems almost to wish for something else for himself. Then he rejects that awareness and continues on on his pursuit.

Melville’s story contains a pair of prophecies that both ultimately proves to be true. The giver of the second prophecy is Fedallah, a Middle Eastern “pagan” harpooneer. He predicts accurately the manner of his death and the death of Captain Ahab. Earlier in the novel, before Ishmael and Queequeg board The Pequod, a Christian prophet named Elijah warns them that anyone who sails on Ahab’s ship will be sailing toward their own doom. This prophecy also proves to be true.

Is Melville arguing then that there are many gods? I think this is open to interpretation. At the very least, though, he seems to simultaneously reject religiosity while entertaining the possibility of a divine high power or powers.

Truth:

In many respects, the novel is a metaphor for man’s search for meaning. Ahab pins all of his own self-identity and truth in his quest for revenge, before falling short and meeting a terrible end. He is thus a cautionary tale. Ishmael is his opposite. The narrator is ready to embrace all types of thought and ideas. His side-tangents thematically illustrate in their elaborate depth the limitations of knowledge. Ishmael survives and is depicted as the better model to follow, as between the two.

Ultimately then, Melville might be saying that truth – or the certainty of a thing – cannot actually be obtained. However, he also seems to argue that one can find fulfillment in the search for truth.

Quotes:

It is impossible to discuss Moby-Dick while ignoring its prose. I will quote some of my favorite lines below, but it is not an exaggeration to say that I found myself in awe of the way he put a sentence together at least once in almost every chapter.

“Call me Ishmael.”

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant, I act under orders.”

“From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”

“In common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing. In truth, a mature man who uses hair-oil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can’t amount to much in his totality.”

“The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.”

“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Conclusion:

This novel is worthy of its reputation and it is worth the effort that might be expended in reading it. Melville manages to combine a compelling surface story with a rich subsurface exploration on the human condition, and all it is presented inside a masterclass on how to write. My review here feels small and woefully incomplete as I believe someone could spend an entire academic career sailing across the vast depths of this novel, mining its depths for meaning, and admiring its genius. The following quote sums up my feelings.

“I am not a Melville scholar; but ever since I read Moby-Dick Melville has been following me around.”
― Mary Norris

I recommend the book, challenges, and all, to everyone.

4 thoughts on “Moby-Dick (Book Review)

  1. Really great review of the book. This is one of those classics I hear so much about but have never been able to get to. I did start reading it at one point but I had exams going on so decided to put it aside and read it later. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened so far but maybe at some point I’ll be able to go back and read it.

    1. Thank you! I might have undersold the challenge of it with the gushing review. From a writing standpoint, I was awed by the book. But like I said, if you want to tackle the story, I found that the audiobook format made is *much* easier for me. I really enjoyed it.

      If you do read it, I hope you provide a review!

      1. I think audiobook would definitely be best for me too because the thought of reading it is a little daunting.

        Will definitely consider reviewing it when I read it!