Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thoughts on Moby-Dick


This is not a "review" of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.  Another one of those wouldnt do much good.  What follows are simply my thoughts and impressions on finally finishing a book that I first attempted, and failed to complete, more than four decades ago.  Since that first encounter, I have probably read the first quarter of Melville's classic another ten times without getting any further into the novel.  But this time I made it despite setting the book aside for two or three weeks at a time.  And I feel like I finally successfully climbed Everest.

Most everyone knows the basic plot of Moby-Dick: nineteenth-century whaler loses his leg to a ghostly white whale and becomes obsessed with revenging his loss by killing the huge creature.  Nothing less will do.  What most people who have not read the classic do not realize is how few pages of the novel are actually devoted to advancing Melville's plot (my own rough estimate is that less than half of the book's more than 600 pages do so).  The rest of the book, the portion that most often drives readers to distraction, is Melville's primer on the nuts and bolts of whaling, whaling ships and their crews, and whale anatomy. 

Melville, through the voice of his narrator, builds a strong case that those risking their lives providing a product so critical to the nation deserve much more respect and appreciation than they are accorded by the public.  He is also determined that his readers get a proper sense of the size of the creatures whalers were, under the harshest of conditions, battling for the benefit of those who took it all for granted.  Melville accomplishes both admirably.  The risks these men took with their lives on the open sea are astounding, and modern readers cannot help but be impressed by their skill and courage.

Moby-Dick has a Shakespearian quality to it, even to what at times sounds almost like stage direction inserted by the author as an aside.  This quality is most apparent in Melville's dialogue and the way he has his characters regularly speak their deepest and most private thoughts aloud.  Both the structure and the philosophical nature of the book contribute to its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written - despite the generally terrible reception the novel received when first published. 

Bottom Line:  There is so much going on in Moby-Dick that whole books have been written about the novel.  It is, I suspect, on many more "To Be Read" lists than it is on "Read" lists, and this is understandable given its length and complexity.  Readers, however, should never permanently abandon their effort to read this classic novel.  Just the feeling of accomplishment one gets when that final page is turned is reason enough to keep Moby-Dick on the nightstand as long as it takes.

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