“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.” ….things I wish I wrote…
I recently finished reading Moby Dick. It was completely voluntary and I didn’t hate it. Sure, there were parts that made my eyes gloss over, or my ears tune out, depending on if I was reading or listening on Audible at the time, but I stuck it out and I took it in. Now I am ready to give you my assessment.
First of all, no one ever told me this book had humor. There were a couple of parts early on that brought a smile or caused me to giggle, but there is a scene in the middle of the book that caused me to pure belly laugh.
In the beginning, Queequeg the cannibal is endearing and affectionate in ways that are inappropriate and uncomfortable, which is hilarious at times. But he wraps you up in his friendly warmth in no time flat. Queequeg is my favorite character and I kept wanting to check in on what he was up to much later in the book when I was reading the less lovely chapters on whaling.
And the cook! The cook was an older negro man they called Old Fleece. He was commanded to lean over the side of the boat and tell the sharks that were feasting on whale carcass to make less racket while they ate. Now, this was insulting to him of course, and I was insulted for him, but he had no choice. So he goes to the sharks three times to instruct, beg and eventually preach to these ravenous creatures persuading them to stop being so greedy and unmannerly and to scurry on. It was hysterical. And I am so glad I was listening when I got to that part because the brilliant narrator, Frank Muller, brought it all home.
(Do yourself a favor and search Frank Muller on Audible and just download any of it.)
Glory, glory!! The book is long but the chapters are short! There are 135 of them and you never have to feel like you’ve left a task unfinished by not getting through a whole chapter. There are two, maybe three, longer chapters in the whole book. The language is not at all too frilly or lofty. This is a doable read for anyone who has the desire, with the greatest challenge being the tedious writings on the different aspects of whaling. These are parts I would say most people would not love. There are chapters on all the different species of whales, how they travel, the differences in their anatomy, the differences in how the water shoots out of their blow holes and how you can identify the sperm whale by observing just this. (I actually was fascinated by that). You even get a chapter on the types of rope that are used for particular types of whale capture. I mean, this book is the definition of thorough when it comes to explaining the ins and outs of whaling. But did you also know, that the different chapters in this book also represent different genres of literature? Don’t take it from me, I didn’t even pick up on all that, my friend told me. Then I fact checked it on the internet and it was confirmed.
The novel is an encyclopedia of forms, a narrative chowder that combines dictionary, whaling manual, comedy, tragedy, epic, prophecy, sermon, soliloquy, drama, bawdy humor, and tales within tales. … Melville looks at the whale, with relish, from an exuberant assortment of literary angles, encompassing them all into one mighty compendium and in so doing breaking the boundaries of what it means to be a book. —Elizabeth Renker, Introduction to Moby-Dick
Did you see that first sentence there? A narrative chowder? This reminds me that chapter 15 is entitled Chowder. After a day of being on the water in a smallish boat, Ishmael and Queequeg are hungry. Queequeg doesn’t eat his friends, so they search for some dinner. They enter a restaurant/Inn recommended to them as having the best chowder around.
“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt……..the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we dispatched it with great expedition:
After reading that scene, (and it stretches on with more soupy details), I decided that one of the rewards I would give myself for having read this book is… to search for the best Clam Chowder in eastern North Carolina, and go there and eat it. I’ve never had Clam Chowder and I’ve never wanted it, until I read this chapter. Now, I must have it. What I would really love is for that Moby Dick-themed restaurant that was featured in The Storied Life of AJ Fikry to really exist. Then I would go there and they would surely have the best chowder.
The next reward I shall have are these!
As a reader, I am most interested in the story. And I’ll be honest with you, you don’t get a whole lot of it in Moby Dick. It simmers throughout the length of the novel but it’s really only spoken of here and there. Instead, Melville is treating us to other brilliant aspects of his writing; treasures hidden underneath the surface that seekers of deeper things have the insight to uncover. But the layman reader like myself, who is taking special notation of the plot, has to wait til the end of the book to get the confrontation she was waiting for. By the time I made it to the end, I knew either Captain Ahab or Moby Dick had to die, and I no longer cared which one it would be. I just needed it to go down. Those who read more deeply understand just exactly which of the two should, and does, die.
There are hundreds of thoughtful insights in the book, far more than I have the energy or intelligence to look into. Thoughts such as the great white whale being the symbol for God, and the way Melville intentionally creates a multi-cultural/multi-racial crew of men upon the Pequod, and the ways they all needed one another to be successful in their mission. There is so much to explore here and the only way I would ever dive that deeply into it would be for me to take a class or something. I am not likely to do that level of research on my on. Heck, I’m 49 years old and I read the book just because I wanted to. What else do you want from me???
Lastly, there is a quote about the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, whom I had never heard of until I watched LOST. Yes, I’m going there again. Haven’t you people watched this show yet?? Anyway, a different Jeremy Bentham is murdered and hung on a chandelier on LOST. Now check out this quote from Moby Dick. Coincidence?? I think not.
“Though Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of his executors, correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian old gentleman, with all Jeremy’s other leading personal characteristics; yet nothing of this kind could be inferred from any leviathan’s articulated bones.”
I have conquered the great leviathan, Moby Dick. What about you? Was it forced labor? Did you decide for yourself? And what did you think about it? I’m dying to know!
The copy of Moby Dick that I have was given to me as a congratulatory gift for completing the LOST Book Club reading challenge. My friend Justin hails this as his favorite book and I probably never would have read it if he hadn’t given it to me.