In his book (first published as The Whale in October 1851), Melville goes on at great length about various things, mostly whaling. Whaling is a great and noble pursuit, he would have us believe, or rather Ishmael, the narrator, would have us believe this. Whales he classifies according to their size, and contrary to most scientific understanding he declares resolutely that they are fish of a kind, supposing jocularly that to conclude otherwise would require them to vacate the oceans entirely.
What one discovers upon reading this noble and strange book is that it is written with a great deal of wry humour, intermingled with pages of florid Shakespearean soliloquising. Only a small amount of the book describes the story of the demented Ahab and his quest for Moby Dick.2 If all the extraneous passages were removed, one fancies the tale would fit admirably into a slim volume suitable for toting in one's back pocket, which portability would be conducive, no doubt, to the reading of it in the outdoors in parks on lazy summer afternoons. As it stands the book is too large to fit in any but the pockets of an overcoat, leading to its being read at rainy bus stops and in snow-covered cottages on mountains. In his defence, however, Melville raises the question of the massiveness of his subject:
"How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? ... We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it."3
One is reminded ruefully of the many attempts at writing the great flea novel, which reckless endeavour has led directly to the downfall of countless promising authors, notably Shaw, Flaubert, von Goethe, and latterly Stephen King, whose 1,900-page epic The Life of a Flea had its entire print run pulped after selling only one copy (to a dog).
There is much enjoyment to be derived from the poetic parts of the book, and anyone who reviews it has an abundance of illuminating discourse to select from in giving excerpts. Melville's extended musings on the philosophy associated with the sea are engaging in an agreeable and mildly intoxicating manner. On the task of standing atop the masts of a whale-ship scouting for whales, for example, he gives us this enjoyable exposition:
"'Why, thou monkey,' said a harpooneer to one of these lads, 'we've been cruising now hard upon three years and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here.' Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it."4
One can quite easily identify with the lad with "lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness" thus described, since were one a sailor on a 19th-century whaling ship one would no doubt similarly wish to avoid work as far as possible, as one does in ordinary life. "Nowadays," Melville informs us, "the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking care of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber."
Melville finds many places to eulogise life on the ocean, and is clearly very impressed with whales, particularly sperm whales, which he tries to convince us are in fact geniuses. The reason sperm whales never speak, he assures us, is that they have more important things on their minds than conferring with mere humans:
"But how? Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence.5... But then again, what
has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world..." 6
Similarly one trusts one's own genius will at length be recognised and rewarded through continuing to do nothing in particular.
Whales are compared favourably in Moby Dick to everything Melville can think of, indeed one almost expects next to read that he would like to marry one. So revered is the sperm whale in this book that one is confounded and saddened by the nonchalance with which the butchery of them is described, and the extensive detail given on methods of dissection and uses of the various parts. If you love whales so much, Herman, why do you want to chop them into pieces?
Despite this gruesomeness Moby Dick contains many vividly descriptive and exciting passages to do with the hunting of whales, which were chased by intrepid crews and harpoon-throwers manning small boats which were lowered from whaling ships. In one memorable chapter the narrator's ship encounters a vast shoal of migrating whales and boats are dispatched to kill as many as possible.
"As, blind and deaf, the whale plunged forward, as if by sheer power of speed to rid himself of the iron leech that had fastened to him; as we thus tore a white gash in the sea, on all sides menaced as we flew, by the crazed creatures to and fro rushing about us; our beset boat was like a ship mobbed by ice-isles in a tempest, and striving to steer through their complicated channels and straits, knowing not at what moment it may be locked in and crushed."8
There follows an account of a bizarre phenomenon whereby the shoal swims in a circular formation, in the midst of which the ocean is becalmed and Ishmael's boat is entrapped. Melville takes this (and every other) opportunity to use his subject matter as an analogy by which to elucidate his philosophical soul:
"And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy."9
The level of poetic beauty found in the book is doubly impressive when one considers that Melville was also an accomplished sailor, having embarked on several whaling expeditions and involved himself in numerous thoroughly exciting seafaring adventures10. Also the book is so long one has to admire his patience and commitment in writing the whole of it.
There are only really two famous quotations from this book. Were its author alive today he would no doubt be somewhat disappointed by this, but on the other hand he would probably be ecstatic at having reached the age of 185 and having seen the advent of such modern marvels as the miniskirt, hula-hoops, pocket calculators, mind-reading helmets, and robotic monkeys, none of which were available when the book was written. Poor Herman would probably also be utterly sickened by the depletion of the whale population caused by hunting and would be a staunch supporter of environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace, and would donate all the gold and jewels he accrued during his bloodthirsty piratical voyages to PETA. The most famous line appears in the following passage, and evinces Ahab's maniacal hatred of his prey, the whale who so thoughtlessly stole his leg:
"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; 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. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"7
Has anyone ever hated anyone else as much as Ahab hated Moby Dick? Arguably some people hate reviled dance musician Moby almost as much, though to date none of his detractors has pursued him across an ocean. The other famous line in the book is its opening line: "Call me Ishmael". One can readily see why this line has become famous.
It is clear from reading this book that, above all, Melville was exceedingly proud of the long and successful whaling tradition and people of his great country, and particularly fond of the island town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, the port from which the Pequod (Ahab's ship) and many other of the ships in the story set sail. As well as being rightly celebrated for its historic maritime tradition, the noble town of Nantucket is well-known for its appearance in numerous amusing limericks. The town's name is, and no doubt long has been, much-beloved of sailors and many others the world over for its quality of rhyming with "fuck it", for which few would deny the town, and the country in which it is situated, great credit.
In closing I would like to remark that there are, in addition to the more philosophical portions, many diverting and entertaining jokes in the book, and you might get a few laughs if you read it. Nevertheless this is a book I cannot wholly recommend due to the unremitting cruelty to animals it depicts.
1. This is possibly not true as I made it up.
2. SPOILER: Ahab dies.
3. Ch 104, third paragraph.
4. Ch 35, penultimate paragraph.
5. Ch 79, fifth paragraph.
6. Ch 85, sixth paragraph.
7. Ch 135, fifth paragraph from the end.
8. Ch 87, seventeenth paragraph.
9. Ch 87, twenty-seventh paragraph.
10. In 1841, reliable sources inform us, Melville set sail on the whaling ship Acushnet, registered in Fairhaven, MA. He deserted the ship while it was moored in the Marquesas Islands (a French colonial possession allegedly populated by cannibals). He later stowed away on a ship bound for Tahiti. A few years later he joined the US Navy and soon after returned to Boston. These incidents formed the basis for his book Typee. Moby Dick was, apparently, based on the sinking of the ship Essex by a whale. Melville supposedly got a first-hand written account after meeting the son of one of the survivors, Owen Chase, during an exchange with another ship on the high seas.