Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I decided to gird my loins, pluck up all my courage and such and get down to reading Moby Dick early on in the year, I’ve been putting it off for years. I inherited an ancient copy of it but that hasn’t surfaced since our house move so I read it on my Kindle – in about five days! That’s what you can do when the weather keeps you stuck in the house. I read every word of it too, no skim reading for me.

Well just call me a twit because all that I knew about Moby Dick was that it was about a whale, it never occurred to me that that would obviously mean it was about whale hunting, not a thing which appeals to me at all.

It all started off so well with the author explaining exactly how the word whale should be pronounced – huale. It is a difficult thing to put down in print but you know what he means and I’m completely with him on this – no ‘wh’ sound should be pronounced ‘w’. Let’s face it, that makes for all sorts of unecessary confusion such as whether/weather – which/witch – whales/Wales – where/wear – what/watt and such. It’s an English thing to pronounce ‘wh’ and ‘w’ the same and I can clearly remember when I was being taught to read that it was important to make that ‘wh’ sound.

This is a writer that I can relate to I thought and I did find it interesting. Ishmael is keen to join a whaling ship although he knows he won’t get much in the way of pay and he might be away for as long as three years. He finds a bed in a rough looking inn and has to share a bed with Queequeg which is a scary prospect because Queequeg is a tattooed cannibal with sharpened teeth. But the two of them end up getting on very well, mainly because Ishmael recognises that Queequeg is a man that he can learn a lot from and Queequeg is happy that Ishmael has no prejudices against him. In fact the lack of prejudice is the best thing in the book with the make up of the crew of the ship which they both end up joining being like a league of nations.

Unfortunately Melville decided to dredge up every bit of history and writing about whales that he could get his hands on, from the bible, Shakespeare, letters, historical documents, reports from monks, if it mentioned whales he pulled it out from somewhere, what can I say – he needed an editor. He even mentioned the monks at Dunfermline (in that abbey which I blogged about a few days ago) eating whale/porpoise balls, presumably ‘meatballs’ (don’t tell IKEA). Descriptions of different sorts of whales and what we would nowadays call dolphins, their habits and habitats.

It all got quite tedious, in fact if about 60% of the book was filleted out of the middle of it then I think it would be an improvement. It did get a bit more interesting when they actually got down to whale hunting but only from a historical perspective as you can imagine, the thought of harpooning whales is disgusting and being told that their bodies often have multiple harpoons already embedded in them from previous hunts is horrific.

Captain Ahab doesn’t appear all that much. He’s obsessed with Moby Dick because in a previous encounter with the great white whale, Moby Dick relieved him of one of his legs from below the knee. In an act of vengence Ahab uses a whale bone as his lower leg instead of the more usual wooden ‘peg leg’. I think that J.M. Barrie might have based his Captain Hook on Ahab.

Nantucket seems to have been where the best whalers came from and a lot of them had originally been Quakers, but those who took up whaling were Quakers with a vengeance, which I found amusing.

But of course whale hunts still take place, with the Japanese and some Scandinavians insisting on keeping it going as it’s a traditional occupation, and of course lucrative, while the rest of us are out there trying to save beached whales who have got into trouble on our coasts.

I took a few notes of bits which I liked early on when I was optimistic about the book:

There was Queequeg, now certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo (his god) …. and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

When the landlady thought that Queequeg had killed himself: Betty, go to Snarles the painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with – “no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor,” – might as well kill both birds at once.

I did think as I was reading it that Melville must have some Scottish blood in him because he does use the word ‘wee’ quite a few times and he mentions Presbyterianism a lot but it would seem that it was the Dutch form of Presbyterianism.

Anyway, that’s Moby Dick ticked off my bucket list. I read this one as part of my Classics Club challenge. The book was first published in 1851 and it apparently spent quite a long time in the wilderness before someone decided that it was an American classic.

4 thoughts on “Moby Dick by Herman Melville

  1. Katrina,
    Your comments and thoughts about Moby Dick fascinated me. Reading this tome is an experience, and not one that you, or anyone who reads it, soon forgets!

    I think it might be quite likely that Melville has some Scottish genes going on there. I know nothing of his ancestry. My older brother Doug adored Melville and everything he wrote. Unfortunately, Melville was one author that I just couldn’t relate to, though I tried. I’ve read Billy Buck and Moby Dick, and I do wonder if it’s easier for men to understand Melville.

    Judith

    • Judith,
      You might be right about that. In those middle bits I did have that feeling of being ‘lectured’ to by a man who is fascinated by a subject and just has to show how much he knows about it. It’s something which a lot of men do, even if they don’t know as much about the subject as you do – whatever it might be! I think women of a certain age have less patience with that sort of thing. It was an experience anyway.

  2. So did you end up liking it overall? I do like the book. I liked it even better the second time I read it in spite of those whaling chapters in the middle which can get pretty gruesome.

    • Stefanie,
      I liked it in parts and those parts I enjoyed a lot but I think there was an awful lot of information about whales which is now completely outdated and I could have done without what seemed like regurgitation of every mention of whales in literature – ever! There were so many words that it was as if he was being paid by the word, as lots of writers were, and sometimes still are, but I don’t think he was.

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