“Moby Dick; or The Whale” was one of the novels on the 501 list that I anticipated reading with pleasure. After all, it’s one of the Great American Novels and it opens with one of the most recognisable lines – “Call me Ishmael”. When originally published in 1851 it met with mixed reviews and now I can see why.
It’s a sailor’s tale of a sperm whale hunting voyage around the world on the Pequod, captained by Ahab. As Melville spent 18 months aboard a whaling ship the nautical elements of the tale ring true. The cast of characters on land and at sea are varied and believable. Yes there’s a few salty old sea-dogs but few stereotypes and the dialogue, even when veering into slang and accents is always readable and entertaining. The most compelling character is Captain Ahab himself, a man driven to dangerous extremes in his desire for revenge on the whale which took his leg on a previous hunting trip.
What I hadn’t expected, however, was the amount of the novel which takes place on land (as Ishmael wittily describes his need to go to sea as a cure for his depression and befriends an exotic harpooner), the sheer length of novel which would pass before we meet Ahab, or the fact that in a 514 page novel (in my ebook edition) that it would only be in the final 20 pages that we would cross paths with Moby Dick himself who was inspired by various real encounters with aggressive bull whales.
As the voyage proceeds the ship encounters various dramas such as a typhoon off Japan, the increasingly deranged behaviour of the captain, the daily danger of their trade, and a series of meetings with other ships who have encountered the white whale. Their increasingly awful stories serve to underline the insanity of Ahab’s vendetta which doesn’t abate even when they meet a ship burying the whale’s latest victim.
Melville shows considerable skill with language and I loved the chapters which he wrote as scripts. So when I, finally, reached the last twenty pages and the whale, I thoroughly enjoyed the ending.
Did I enjoy this classic? Yes and no. The drama of the core story was excellent and his beautiful and varied use of the English language was a joy to read, however it was a struggle to finish and when I mentioned this to other keen readers I found many who started it but gave up. Incorporating so much detail on the anatomy of the whale and the means of hunting it slowed the pace terribly and rendered large sections of the novel dull.
I can happily read long novels of this period bu does anybody really care anymore exactly how the harpoon rope is made, stored and coiled? I love travel stories, I adore anything to do with the sea and I am interested in wildlife and social history of this period but every time he headed off on another lengthy aside filled with references to obscure books about whaling I could feel the life draining out of me. Yes, some of it was fascinating and perhaps at the time of publication it exposed the dangers of whaling to the fishermen (not to mention the poor whales) but overall, despite the brilliant writing, I did not enjoy this novel.
(Read June-July 2013)