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Book Review: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Or, the Whale


Moby Dick

1851, 720 pages. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.



The outcast youth Ishmael, succumbing to wanderlust during a dreary New England autumn, signs up for passage aboard a whaling ship. The Pequod sails under the command of the one-legged Captain Ahab, who has set himself on a monomaniacal quest to capture the cunning white whale that robbed him of his leg: Moby-Dick. Capturing life on the sea with robust realism, Melville details the adventures of the colorful crew aboard the ship as Ahab pursues his crusade of revenge, heedless of all cost.




One of those books everyone knows even if they haven't read it. It also seems to be a more polarizing book than many classics - there are certainly people who love it, but many others who speak of it as a thing to be endured.

Having finally finished Melville's epic, I can understand that. It is a thing to be waded through, sometimes ploddingly. But the most common criticism - that it's full of extraneous chapters about the details of whaling and cetacean biology (such as 19th century authors understood it) - did not bother me. It's true that that sort of exposition would be brutally chopped out of a modern novel, but I actually found parts of it interesting. There's an entire chapter about the whale's penis, which somehow slipped by the maiden aunts in Melville's original audience because it never explicitly states what it is he's describing. Then there is the debate about whether or not whales are fish.


First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnaeus declares, "I hereby separate the whales from the fish." But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.

The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: "On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem," and finally, "ex lege naturae jure meritoque." I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.

Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. This fundamental thing settled, the next point is, in what internal respect does the whale differ from other fish. Above, Linnaeus has given you those items. But in brief, they are these: lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded.


Dude, six-year-old me could have explained to you at laborious length why whales weren't fish. So there.

Anyway, the bones of the story are that a peripatetic sailor decides to try his hand at whaling, signs on to the Pequod, and joins the crew of Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with hunting down the great white whale (actually, a sperm whale) Moby Dick, who took his leg.

What makes Moby Dick a classic? What has made it so compelling, lengthy chapters on 19th century cetology and all, and inflicted it on generations of suffering English students?

There are of course the plentiful Biblical allusions and the great moral struggles of the main characters. Ishmael, while the narrator and sole survivor of the tale, is really a rather bland protagonist. He does little throughout the book but describe events and comment on others. It is the other crewmembers of the Pequod that makes the story such an epic tragedy. Starbuck, the morally conflicted First Mate, who tries but never quite does stand up to mad Captain Ahab.


"Captain Ahab," said Starbuck, who, with Stubb and Flask, had thus far been eyeing his superior with increasing surprise, but at last seemed struck with a thought which somewhat explained all the wonder. "Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick—but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?"

"Who told thee that?" cried Ahab; then pausing, "Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye," he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; "Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!" Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave."

"Aye, aye!" shouted the harpooneers and seamen, running closer to the excited old man: "A sharp eye for the white whale; a sharp lance for Moby Dick!"

"God bless ye," he seemed to half sob and half shout. "God bless ye, men. Steward! go draw the great measure of grog. But what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?"

"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

"Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money’s to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!"

"He smites his chest," whispered Stubb, "what’s that for? methinks it rings most vast, but hollow."

"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."


This be the heart of the conflict - not Ahab vs. Moby Dick, but Ahab vs. Starbuck. Ahab wants to kill the "fish" that took his leg. Starbuck, quite reasonably, points out that they're on a voyage to hunt whales for profit and have to answer to the owners. Ahab elevates their quest to one of divine vengeance, which Starbuck regards as madness and blasphemy. Yet he never actually takes action against Ahab, just angsts about it.

Ahab is the ship's id; Starbuck its ego. Or, Ahab is its primal heart, Starbuck its reasoning mind. And the reasoning mind proves to be weak and ineffectual.

As an adventure story, Moby Dick is about 700 pages of rumination and exposition, and 20 pages of action. No wonder that so many people don't like it. And I can't say that I found those long chapters about whaling to really add much - this is an epic, a Greek tragedy, and Melville's wordiness does indeed detract from the drama.

Yet he certainly captures dramatic scenes. His characters speak with Shakespearean thunder - not always believably as Nantucket seamen, but there is much memorable dialog here.


"Befooled, befooled!"—drawing in a long lean breath—"Aye, Parsee! I see thee again.—Aye, and thou goest before; and this, this then is the hearse that thou didst promise. But I hold thee to the last letter of thy word. Where is the second hearse? Away, mates, to the ship! those boats are useless now; repair them if ye can in time, and return to me; if not, Ahab is enough to die—Down, men! the first thing that but offers to jump from this boat I stand in, that thing I harpoon. Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me.—Where’s the whale? gone down again?"

But he looked too nigh the boat; for as if bent upon escaping with the corpse he bore, and as if the particular place of the last encounter had been but a stage in his leeward voyage, Moby Dick was now again steadily swimming forward; and had almost passed the ship,—which thus far had been sailing in the contrary direction to him, though for the present her headway had been stopped. He seemed swimming with his utmost velocity, and now only intent upon pursuing his own straight path in the sea.

"Oh! Ahab," cried Starbuck, "not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"


I didn't love Moby Dick. At times it had trouble holding my attention. But after reading In the Heart of the Sea, about the whaleship Essex (which Melville used as a basis for Moby Dick, and even references explicitly in the novel) I was very interested in finally taking on this great American novel, and I am glad I did. There is a lot of worthwhile content in its bloated pages. Madness, obsession, the salty sting of winds and waves, blood and blubber and oil and sweat, and one big-ass whale.

Whales on Film



Netflix apparently hates Melville too, as while there have been several movie and TV miniseries based on Moby Dick, none are available there.

The 1956 movie directed by John Huston, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, and written by sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, is probably the most famous.

Moby Dick (1956)

There was a 1998 TV miniseries starring Patrick Stewart.



And another one in 2011 starring Ethan Hawke and Donald Sutherland.

Moby Dick (2011)

There seems to be some whale inflation going on here, which reminds me of this:

Godzilla

So finally, here is this low-budget thing:

2010: Moby Dick

Apparently they try to nuke a whale.






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