…you glance at a shopping list and, for a split second, read one of the headings as “Whale Fishery”. What it actually says is “Whole Foods”.
Years ago, when I first tried to read this book (and stopped halfway), I thought it was the most boring classic I’d ever read, as well as one of the hardest books I’d ever read. The plot is pretty simple–an insane captain sets out to get revenge on a whale. The book, however, happens to be over 600 pages long. It alternates between telling the story and talking about whales, with whole chapters that read like encyclopedia articles with author’s commentary.
Surprisingly enough, though, this time I like it.
The writing style is very interesting. It’s first-person, but the narrator is able to tell the reader practically as much as third-person narration does. Sometimes the narrator tells the story like any other author, with even comic relief. Other times he goes on for chapters about whaling, and whales, and his thoughts. And, every time he changes the subject, he usually starts a new chapter.
The narrator himself is really annoying. I mean REALLY annoying. Why is it that, with all his self-righteousness of being fair and unbiased, he would still seem to be prejudiced towards certain kinds of people? I especially disliked his attempted ironic comparison of the Quakers’ pacifism and their whale-hunting. I think it goes without saying that there’s a big difference between killing a person and killing a whale.
As far as Captain Ahab goes, the book brings out his sanity more than the movie version does. There was, for example, an interesting subplot that shows how scheming he could be; I also get the impression that, before he lost his leg, he seemed to be a pretty normal person. I’m going to have to watch the film again, but these seem to be a couple of the differences between the book and the film.
In any case, Starbuck is my favourite character. He is a rational character amidst “the madness of crowds”. “‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!'”
Now, I’ve seen the 1956 version (a good movie, by the way), so I know how the story is going to end. But the thing about Moby-Dick, is that it’s almost like a mystery. In some ways, it’s more suspenseful than a mystery, because it’s not a story I can completely understand. And it’s not like Lord of the Rings, either, where you can keep finding the answers to your questions–I don’t know if that’s possible with Moby-Dick. It’s just really complex…an extraordinary book which tries to explain every little thing to the reader, and yet leaves me with nearly as many questions as before.
Something which I only learned recently is that a true-story whaling accident was part of the inspiration for writing Moby-Dick, and it just so happened that I had already read a book about it. The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is an eyewitness narrative written in 1821 by Owen Chase, who was the second in command. It’s a must-read in my opinion, an amazing survival story. Even if I hadn’t ended up reading Moby-Dick later on, I was glad to have read Chase’s book first. I always prefer reading a book written by somebody who was actually there; and these days, whaling stories may not be as glamorous as pirates and Royal Navy books, but they’re nonetheless a fascinating part of American history.