Moby-Dick; or, the Whale
By Herman Melville (1851)
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Pop culture is a strange and fascinating beast, but like many of its ilk, it’s easy to hate. Now, I could never stay mad at it, but there’s a little bit of me that groans every time I turn on the TV (which isn’t often, but sometimes it can’t be avoided) or sit down at the movies (much better than TV) and hear Moby-Dick referred to as a boring book a character read in high school. Early reviewers who savaged Herman Melville’s most famous novel were right to point out that it is a flawed work, but Moby-Dick is not a boring book. I mean, how could a book about the mad pursuit of human purpose, of God, of nature’s awe-inspiring power, of the myriad other symbolic associations the White Whale has racked up be considered boring? Especially when you consider that the pursuant of the many ideals the Whale represents seeks to destroy it as revenge for taking his leg? Melville wanted to do it all with this book, and it might be the chronologically first novel written with the clear intent to do it all. In 1849, Richard Wagner coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which roughly translates to “total work of art” and roughly means a work of art that uses every possible art form to get its point across.
Well, Moby-Dick isn’t quite that, not in the same way that Wagner’s spectacular (in the old-school, “spectacle-like-you’ve-never-seen-before” sense of the world) operas are, but it’s certainly close. Predating the likes of Pynchon by more than a century, Melville uses as many storytelling methods as you can think of to get his point across. This means sermons, songs, satires, overheard conversations, and yes, those infamous encyclopedic passages. People tend to hate these segments, and they probably account for this novel’s reputation as being dull, but while the information in them is supposed to be outdated from a scientific perspective, they sure give you a sense of the whale’s size, power, and pull over Ishmael, that famously unreliable narrator who grabs the reader by the shoulder and pulls them into his strange and massive allegory via this big breathless rush of words, kicked off by that famous “call me Ishmael” and kept up even as he describes the feeding habits of the blue and sperm whales.
And yes, the novel has its oddities. I’ll defend those encyclopedic passages to the death, since the sea fascinates me and therefore whales fascinate me, but there are other decisions I wondered about. Not every character is as multifaceted as the best few. Captain Ahab and the whale, whose relationship is as tangled as they come, Ishmael, and Queequeg are the ones you know, for good reason, but Starbuck, the first mate who can’t deal with the turn the voyage takes, is just as compelling. However, some of the other crew members don’t get much more than a name, most notably the personality-free Third Made Flask, who still takes up a decent amount of screen time. Strange, also, is Ishmael’s bizarre and never-explained ability to reach into the psyches of those around him and pull out their innermost thoughts: for instance, he begins one scene by stating that Starbuck and Ahab were alone in a cabin, and then narrates the scene as though he were there with them, which of course makes me wonder how he knew all this. Plus, while this isn’t a flaw to me, the plot is unfocused: anyone looking for tight forward motion should look elsewhere.
Yet, with all the strengths of Moby-Dick taken into account, I can’t imagine how it could be thought of as boring. Besides the central premise, which you have to admit is just golden, and the strength of the language, which is beautiful stuff, what we have is a terrific adventure story with a sense of old-fashioned grandeur, a real sweep to it that strikes me as irresistible. It’s not just that the scope of it is cosmic, it’s that the chase scenes are breathless in a way that well exceeds your favorite Hollywood car chase; they’re masterpieces of pacing and personality, and they build to the most colossal of building points. Yes, a lot of time is spent on the Pequod, but a lot of the time on the Pequod is spent tracking Ahab’s descent into obsessive madness, which is also fascinating.
So I mean, where does the “boring” thing come from? Is it really just the length of the thing, or are readers just that upset by the encyclopedic portions on whaling? Eh, whatever. If you take it from most people, you shouldn’t read Moby-Dick, but I’m here to tell you most people are wrong. Even with its flaws in mind, you should still pick this sucker up as soon as you can.