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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This was our Book Group’s choice for our Christmas  read – we always tackle a classic over the festive season. This time we couldn’t decide between ourselves, so everyone threw a suggestion in the hat and this came out.

Moby Dick is one of those books I always planned to read eventually as it is such an influential classic.  Amazingly I didn’t have a copy so I ordered the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has helpful notes, an introductory essay by Tony Tanner which explores many of the facets of the book, and extracts from Melville’s correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne about the book.  Christmas came and it hadn’t arrived – stuck in the backlog, so I downloaded it as my first Kindle book – paying for the same edition I’d ordered.

Published in 1851, Moby Dick is the tale of one man’s obsession with catching a wily old white whale.  Captain Ahab lost his leg to Moby, and won’t stop at anything to get his revenge on the creature.   The story is narrated by Ishmael, who wants to get experience on a whaling ship.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, he agrees to share a room, little knowing the other occupant is a tattooed Polynesian harpooner; however once they both get over the shock, Ishmael and Queequeg become bosum pals and Queequeg is, despite his savage ways, a delight and fast became my favourite character.

Before leaving for Nantucket to find a ship, they visit the Seaman’s Bethel – the Whaler’s chapel in New Bedford.  This is real (see right).  On my last US holiday back in 2004 we passed through New Bedford (on our way to Battleship Cover at Fall River with its collection of old naval vessels).  Anyway, we visited the whaling museum and passed by the chapel, which sadly wasn’t open but did provide the photo-op.

Back to the whale, off they go to Nantucket where they sign on for the crew of the Pequod which is due to sail on a three year voyage.  We’re up to chapter 16 and still no sign of Captain Ahab; Ishmael is getting curious, worried even about his to-be boss …

Turning back I accosted Captain Peleg, inquiring where Captain Ahab was to be found.
‘And what dost thou want of Captain Ahab? It’s all right enough; thou art shipped.’
‘Yes, but I should like to see him.’
‘But I don’t think thou wilt be able to at present. I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. In fact, he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either. Any how, young man, he won’t always see me, so I don’t suppose he will thee. He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab – so some think – but a good one. Oh, thou’lt like him well enough; no fear, no fear. He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen….’

We don’t fully meet Ahab for another twelve chapters, and several days after setting sail.

It was one of those less lowering, but sill grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy rapidity, that as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I leveled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarterdeck.

I’m not going to outline any more of the plot, but you can see that it’s shaping up to be an epic saga – and I would have been very happy to read it as such. However, the book is much more than an adventure yarn.

Melville had experience as a sailor on a whaling-ship, and he was inspired by actual events earlier in the 1800s when a Nantucket ship was sunk after being rammed by a whale, and the alleged killing of a great albino whale off the coast of Chile. Melville has Ishmael, the character is himself an auto-didact, tell us all he learns about whales, whaling and the philosophy of it all – and I do mean all! We have many chapters on the natural history of this giant creature – all the different sub-species, whale anatomy – with individual chapters on the spout, tail, and so on. Then there were chapters about the business of whaling in great detail.  Melville wants to educate us as well as entertain and make us think.

For me, this broke up the story too much, so that I ended up skimming through the whaling manual to cut to the chase, (rather as I did with War and Peace on my first reading as a teenager – I only read the Peace chapters fully).   This destroyed the momentum of the plot and diluted the impact of the sad tale for me.  Whatever you may think of it though, whales and whaling during this time-period are a fascinating business. Overall, I’m really glad I persevered to the end – it was a very worthwhile read, and those who did likewise in our group also got a lot out of this revered tome. (7/10 overall)

One of our group watched the John Huston film starring Gregory Peck to back it up, (the film also has a magnificent cameo by Orson Welles as the preacher in the chapel so I’m told).

On perusing my shelves, I may not have had a copy of Moby Dick, but I did find two more well thought of books on whales and whaling – Leviathan by Philip Hoare, and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philibrick – both of which I am now minded to read sooner rather than later!

P.S. Did you know – the First Mate of the Pequod is called ‘Starbuck’ – and they did name Starbucks after him, although apparently only after Pequod was rejected!

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Moby Dick (Oxford World’s Classics) by Herman Melville
Moby Dick [DVD] starring Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, directed by John Huston (1956)
Moby Dick [DVD] Mini-series starring Patrick Stewart (2004)
… and some further reading:
In the Heart of the Sea: The Epic True Story that Inspired ‘Moby Dick’ by Nathaniel Philibrick
Leviathan by Philip Hoare

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