Thursday, October 15, 2015

Moby Dick - Melville

The basic story of 'Moby Dick' is fairly simple and well known.  A man, 'call me Ishmael', signs on to a whaling boat.  During the voyage, the crew discovers that the Captain, Ahab, lost his leg to a whale the previous year.  Captain Ahab is now bent on revenge.  He will seek out the whale, Moby Dick, and kill him.
When I was younger, I had a children's version of this story.  I don't remember the exact name or publisher, but the format was that of a smaller than usual paperback.  Every other page was a black and white picture, so you could flip through the book and get a fairly full telling of the story.  (I did read the text, too.)
A few years back, I created my very first book project.  I had run across a poll, asking what is the greatest American novel.  I felt some small bit of shame, because I had read so few of the books.  Over the next few years I read through them all including, for the first time, the unedited 'Moby Dick'.  (This is my long-winded way of saying that this was a reread for me.)

In many ways, the story is simple.  The summary that I mentioned up above cuts out some of the important details, like the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg.  Really, it doesn't mention any of the relationships or characters aboard the ship.  Or the philosophical musings of Ishmael that make up the heart of the book.
For instance, Melville writes about the relationship between the sea and the land.  Most of the world is covered in water, with bits of land sticking up.  Under the water are unknown and unknowable creatures, while only the land can support men.  Melville says:
For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!
Melville also interweaves chapters of narrative with full blown chapters of naturalism concerning the whale.  We learn about the whales dimensions and anatomy.  We learn something of their behavior and where they are hunted.  Melville isn't shy about disagreeing with other authors in his opinions.  He spends a great deal of time on the history of whalers and the laws regarding whaling.  (I've got a post in mind on some of his legal aspects.)  After I read this a few years back, I thought that these chapters could be skipped without too much damage to the overall impact.  I still feel that way, though I would encourage any reader to at least sample each one.  I didn't find the anatomy interesting but I did enjoy the history.  Your mileage may vary.

One of the more imposing aspects of 'Moby Dick' is that it has become synonymous with English Lit symbolism.  It may be rife with symbolism, for all I know, but if I missed it, I didn't suffer for the lack.  In other words, don't be scared off.  This book is well worth reading.

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