I now understand Moby Dick’s reputation for being unreadable. The core of the novel is the well-known whale-hunting adventure, with the obsessive Ahab pursuing the white whale to the ends of the farthest ocean, with the “from hell’s heart I stab at thee”, and all that. This material would have made an excellent longer short story, a novella perhaps, with the excitement of the pursuit and the psychological portrait of the captain at its heart.
However, Melville chose to pad this story out to four or five times its length with an interminable, extraordinary amount of additional information about whales and whaling. It read very much as if he did a lot of background research to his subject and included it all in the novel. Can you imagine ‘Heart of Darkness’ with four hundred additional pages on the ivory trade? Or ‘The Great Gatsby’ with a detailed history of the prohibition movement? I found wading through the chapters on the different types of whale, how they are caught, processed, defined and anatomised really difficult, not least because of the brutality and callousness of the process, and the narrator’s wilful ignorance of the impact of nineteenth century whaling on the whale population.
If you can muscle your way past this issue, or perhaps find an expurgated version, there is plenty of interest elsewhere in the novel. Whaling was a dangerous occupation, and the thought of the small sailing boats setting off to harpoon mighty sperm whales has become an iconic image. I am sure I was not the only reader who at times was cheering on the whales. The opening chapters of the novel, when Ishmael meets Queequeg the cannibal harpooner, are very different in tone from those towards the end, and are surprisingly funny. Their relationship is openly homosexual and comically and euphemistically described. Ishmael advises the reader that it is ““Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.” On their first night together sharing a bed, Ishmael catches sight of the “bald purplish head” of the “purple rascal,” and “shrieks” when Queequeg springs under the covers with his tomahawk. After some “kicking about”, Queequeg begins “feeling” Ishmael; next morning they awake with “Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner…You had almost thought I had been his wife.” That Melville was able to get this past his publisher, and the reading public, probably says more about their racism towards the strange habits of the South Sea islander than it does their tolerance of alternative sexual lifestyles!
Ostensibly the narrator of the novel is Ishmael, but we are told very little of his back story, and even less about him as a character. Increasingly as time passes he fades into the background, to be replaced with a traditional omniscient narrator who can see multiple separate and simultaneous events, is able to tell us what characters are thinking and feeling, and is indistinguishable from Melville himself. Call me Ishmael if you like, but Herman would be more polite.
The climax of the novel, a reward for those who make it that far, is stunning. It shows what a good adventure novel has been struggling to emerge all that time. The white whale is sighted, pursued, harpooned, and – well for once I won’t spoil the ending. Suffice to say it was not the one I was expecting. I am conscious I am being quite philistine here – I really should be exploring the novel’s heavy symbolism, its complex literary allusions, and the multiple literary styles employed. Certainly that’s all there for the reader who wants to explore in more detail and read the text with more care – I was simply glad to make it to the other side. Incidentally, this novel ends the nineteenth century section of my read through of the Guardian’s top 100 novels written in English.