MOBY DICK

Author: Herman Melville (1819–1891)
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Limited (2002 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store

Introduction

Herman Melville was born into a well-to-do New York family. However, his father ran into financial problems and died a bankrupt. Herman Melville, then only 12 years old, had to stop his formal education. He found himself drawn to a life at sea. On his first voyage (1839), Melville worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship to and from Liverpool. On 3 January 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the Acushnet, a whaling ship bound for the Pacific. He would not return to mainland America until October 1844. On this journey, he would desert his ship, live with South Pacific natives, commit mutiny on another ship and escape from jail.

Melville’s first three books, Typee (1846), Omoo (1847) and Mardi (1849), were based on his experience in the Pacific. Typee was a hit but each subsequent book proved less popular than its predecessor. His subsequent works were even less well received.

Melville had almost completed writing his sixth novel when he befriended the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. While the nature of their relationship remains the subject of much debate, it seems clear that Hawthorne inspired Melville to revise the novel from a straightforward whaling story into the complex finished product work that we know today as Moby Dick. Melville dedicated the novel, published in 1851, to Hawthorne. The novel was a critical and commercial failure. He turned to writing short stories, including Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855), and poetry. Melville’s literary reputation never recovered and he seemed destined for obscurity by the time he died.

However, beginning in the 1920s, Melville’s reputation began to be resurrected. Today, Moby Dick is hailed not only as the Great American Novel but also a world literary masterpiece. It was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003). It was one of the 88 initial books included in the exhibition “Books That Shaped America” organised by the Library of Congress in 2012.

What is the story about?

Call me Ishmael.

The novel begins with arguably the most famous first line in Western Literature (first in a poll of 100 Best First Lines from Novels published by American Book Review in 2010).

Ismael, the narrator, joined the crew of the whaler Pequod which was about to set off from Nantucket (then the capital of the American whaling industry).

Ishmael first laid eyes on the Pequod’s captain Ahab when the ship was already well on its way (one fifth into the novel):

There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say. By some tacit consent, throughout the voyage little or no allusion was made to it, especially by the mates. But once Tashtego’s senior, an old Gay-Head Indian among the crew, superstitiously asserted that not till he was full forty years old did Ahab become that way branded, and then it came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in an elemental strife at sea …  So powerfully did the whole grim aspect of Ahab affect me, and the livid brand which streaked it, that for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood. It had previously come to me that this ivory leg had at sea been fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw.
(Chapter 28)

Ishmael and the crew learned that Ahab meant to kill a “white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw” known as Moby Dick. This was the same whale that had “dismasted” him and:

… ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
(Chapter 41)

After 3 long years, Ahab finally beheld his quarry (in the third last chapter):

At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish- rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowl softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale’s back; and at intervals one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail feathers streaming like pennons … A gentle joyousness — a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.
(Chapter 133)

Ahab remained defiant right to the end of the 3-day chase:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.
(Chapter 135)

Themes

The main characters, viz. Ahab and his nemesis Moby Dick, can be interpreted as metaphors for any number of things. Today, the term Ahab could refer to someone obsessed with an unachievable goal (Moby Dick), oblivious to the terrible cost. The movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is basically a retelling of Moby Dick, with the implacably unforgiving Khan cast as Ahab and Kirk as the white whale. To make the homage all but unmissable, a copy of Moby Dick is placed in Khan’s base on Ceti Alpha V and Khan paraphrases Ahab liberally – indeed his final lines at the movie’s climax is a verbatim quote of one of Ahab’s final lines as well: “to the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”.

Melville made many references to the Bible, not least to the story of Jonah and the fish. He wrote some chapters like a play, filled with stage directions, dialogue, soliloquies and asides. He interspersed the narrative with many digressions on whales, whaling practices and the whaling industry. He described the horror of the hunt as “… a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight” but unsentimentally justified it declaring that the whale “must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-making of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all” (Chapter 81). He asked “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff” but, with hindsight, wrongly concluded that “we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality” (Chapter 105).

The use of these literary devices allowed Melville to comment on an astonishing variety of topics, eg. politics, law, colonialism, psychology of fear, religion, free will, friendship, racism, tolerance, terror, science and revenge.

Even gastronomy!

But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does. Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras.
(Chapter 65)

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition in the Wordsworth Classics series. It comes with an introduction and notes written by David Herd, University of Kent at Canterbury. There are about 364 notes over 20 pages and they are indispensable.

Moby Dick is of course available online for free. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.32 net bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

This is a weighty novel with some passages that are extremely difficult to read because of the stylised language. The novel is also packed with a great deal of symbolism, similes, allusions and metaphors – many of which will escape the modern reader. This is one book that is worth rereading.

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