“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
This is an extreme novel. Everything is heightened: language, characters, events, emotions. The beginning feels like the start of a light-hearted adventure in the vein of Robinson Crusoe, with wacky characters, funny misunderstandings, and a protagonist in search of excitement. You only hear whispers about the strange captain who will be manning the Pequod, the ship our protaganist will be leaving on, and hints of madness. As the book goes on, though, the stakes get higher and higher as Ahab and his mad pursuit of the famous white whale dominates the narrative. Our narrator barely even mentions himself in the last half of the book. The danger and insanity gleaming in the captain’s eye is both intriguing and clearly going to lead to disaster, but he’s all the more fascinating for it, arrogantly casting himself as a worthy opponent of not just the white whale but the world itself:
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. […] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
The ornate, beautiful language — “the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude” — is great to read, and references to the Bible, ancient Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, and others feel purposeful rather than solely as something meant to be impressively ‘learned’, as they make small events feel like they’re part of something large and important. These influences, combined with how difficult life on the seas was in this period, mean you almost believe Ahab when he speaks as though they’re hunting Gods rather than leviathans. All of this, combined with the sheer length of this thing, make the book almost as epic in scale as the whales it’s so fixated on.
The middle was why this was not an easy read, though, specifically absolute pain-staking detail in the sections where Ishmael puts the stories’ momentum on hold to talk to us about whale biology. Some of these help you better grasp the bravery and difficulties in the life of whale hunter, not to mention the the dangers posed by the white whale Moby Dick himself, but others drag the pacing to a grinding halt. These aren’t weaved very carefully with the narrative, mind, or explained by characters; they’re just detailed, over and over again, as though you’re reading an encyclopaedia.
Still, taken as a whole ‘Moby Dick’ is an obviously great novel. The beginning and ending 200 pages were some of the best prose I’ve ever read (Melville has earned his reputation), and there was even a surprising amount of action. The characters are engaging, too. If you’re a patient reader, don’t let this book’s reputation fool you. With a great sense of humour tempering the more serious moments, it’s more fun to go through than you might expect.
I never want to read about cetology again, though.