To mark the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth (1st August 1819), the Guardian online carried an article by Philip Hoare about the author’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Hoare described it as “the Mount Everest” of literature, as many people apparently start but fail to finish the book. Having done this myself many years ago, Hoare’s article spurred me to revisit Moby-Dick with a refreshed determination to read it through to the end. It took me about three weeks to finish and I enjoyed it hugely. It is a very unusual book that raises many questions, not the least of which is ‘What is it all about?’ Presumably this is why the book was not successful during Melville’s lifetime. As with so many great works of art, though, the ambiguities, oddities and uncertainties are what give it its longevity, as people keep returning to unpick its mysteries. In this blog post, I give my own reflections on Moby-Dick (which are those of an enthusiastic reader, not of an academic expert in English literature).

I’ll begin with a couple of short, simple observations that might be of interest to people who have never so much as glanced at Moby-Dick. First, although it is a long book most of the chapters are very short, some less than a page. This makes it easy to read over a series of short intervals, such as on a rail commute or during your lunch breaks at work, without having to abandon the text in the middle of a long section. Second, if you are expecting a thrilling adventure story you are likely to be disappointed. Perhaps this is why readers often don’t make it through to the end; they may be expecting a different kind of tale. There is action, but mostly towards the end of the book. The notion of the whale-hunt really just seems to be a device – the “MacGuffin”, as Hitchcock called it – to motivate the characters, and thereby allow certain themes to be explored.

The first third of the book consists largely of an introduction to characters and locations, with the first chapter and its famous opening sentence – “Call me Ishmael” – being about our narrator himself. Ishmael’s motivation for going to sea appears to be boredom: “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation”. He rocks up at the Spouter Inn, at New Bedford, where lack of spare accommodation means he has little alternative but to share a bed with Queequeg, a South Sea chieftan who has left his home to explore the world. Queequeg is an experienced harpooneer for whaling ships. Initially rather afraid of “The Pagan”, Ishmael begins to grow close to him in what seems a quite romantic fashion:

“I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it […] Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him”.

Ishmael, a Presbyterian, is invited to join Queequeg in his religious rituals, which he does. Eventually, the two of them depart New Bedford for Nantucket, where they join a whaling ship, the Pequod. Across several chapters we then get introductions to the crew of the ship, notably Captain Ahab; the mates Starbuck (chief mate), Stubb (second mate) and Flask (third mate); and the other harpooneers Tashtego and Dagoo. There is also Pip, the young black cabin boy, who is part prophet and part court jester, especially after he later begins to lose his mind following a period of time alone in the sea.

Chapter 32 is titled ‘Cetology’ and concerns the different types of whales and their classification. Many subsequent chapters are devoted to the physiology of the sperm whale (its head, brain, tale, spout, and so on) and there are even chapters devoted to pictures of whales.

As the Pequod‘s journey progresses, they meet a series of other whaling ships, each of which has had an encounter with Moby-Dick, successively more serious, but without killing the creature. The critical thing to know about Captain Ahab is that he lost a leg, on a previous voyage, to Moby-Dick. He is now obsessed with killing the whale, no matter what the dangers, and is not at all deterred by the reports from the other ships’ captains he meets. Ahab himself does not appear before the crew until several days into the ship’s voyage, thus adding to the air of mystery that surrounds him. This is compounded, on the first occasion that a whale is sighted, by the appearance of previously unseen shipmates: “five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air”. Four of these men are of a “tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas”, while their leader – Fedallah, also referred to as “the Parsee” (a Zoroastrian) – is a dark-skinned man in a white turban. This latter figure is the source of many rumours and is regarded by the crew with deep suspicion, not least because he is the source of some darkly prophetic comments.

What really struck me about the book is the contrast between Ishmael’s wish to understand others, whether they be people or whales, and Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the whale which precludes any attempt to understand the creature beyond predicting its movements. A good example of Ishmael’s open-mindedness comes when his new friend Queequeg – a “wild idolator” – invites him to join his worship:

“But what is worship? – to do the will of God? – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator”.

Ishmael talks of whaling as a noble activity. Indeed, if he did not believe in whaling it would make no sense for him to be on board the Pequod. However, the numerous chapters that are devoted to understanding all aspects of the sperm whale, and other whales, creatures of no little intelligence, inevitably create an empathy for these extraordinary animals that sits uneasily with the vivid descriptions of them being hunted and harpooned until they expire, exhausted, in waters red with their own blood. In contrast to Ishmael’s empathy, Ahab puts the lives of his own men increasingly at risk, pushing them to the limit even when lives have already been lost, the dangers appear overwhelming, and Starbuck is urging him to give up the pursuit.

The narration of the story is unusual. Ishmael’s own presence as a character in the story is perhaps strongest in the first third of the book, especially where he describes the growing bond between himself and Queequeg. Ishmael himself is an actor within the story in these early chapters, which includes getting tossed into the water at one point during a whale hunt. Elsewhere, though, the narration shifts. When Starbuck is introduced, Ishmael’s narration becomes God-like, telling us about Starbuck’s thoughts. Chapter 37 is entirely Ahab’s thoughts, whilst alone in his cabin. Chapter 38 relates Starbuck’s thoughts, as he leans against the mainmast at night. Chapter 39 is Stubbs’ thoughts, as he performs his duty as first night-watch. Chapter 40 is written in the form of a script, giving us the voices of numerous crew members who are on the forecastle at midnight. After this deviation in narrative voice, Chapter 41 returns us to the main narrator, with the opening sentence “I Ishmael, was one of that crew…”. A little later, at the start of Chapter 45, Ishmael seems to highlight that his is not a conventionally told tale: “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…”.

In the last third of the book, although Ishmael continues to narrate, he himself mostly seems to disappear as a character who participates in events. One exception to this is Chapter 94, ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’, in which Ishmael describes his feelings as he bathes his hands in the sperm of the whale. To modern ears much of this chapter seems quite comical, and I wonder if this was how it was meant to read. Philip Hoare’s Guardian article referred to the “queerness” of Moby-Dick, and reference to online dictionaries indicates that the term ‘sperm’ in reference to spermatozoa, as distinct from spermaceti (the waxy substance from the sperm whale), has been in currency since the fourteen century. What then do we make of the lyrical way in which Ishmael rhapsodizes about the act of washing his hands in sperm? –

“I felt divinely free from all ill-will… Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it… I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it… that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally… let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of human kindness”.

Strangely, though, given the emotionality of the early chapters involving Queequeg, when his friend becomes seriously ill, Ishmael does not give any indication that he is especially troubled by this turn of events, beyond stating that all the crew were concerned. This seems a little odd, but then the main motivation of this chapter appears to be to set up certain events that happen later on. Thereafter, as the hunt for Moby-Dick begins to dominate the story and develops into outright action, the focus is on the other characters; although Ishmael is there, we do not know what he is doing. In fact, he largely disappears as an actor until, perhaps, the final page.

For me, one of the great pleasures of Moby-Dick is the quality of the writing, the beauty of the description, whether Melville is describing the anatomy of whales, the layout of the ship, or the characteristics of people. Turning at random to almost any page reveals such penmanship, as in this example:

“The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights” (Chapter 29).

Melville must have been on a creative roll by the time he wrote Moby-Dick and surely had great confidence in what he was doing. It is a shame that, like many of the great artists, his best work was not appreciated in his own lifetime. This is a book that, once finished, really sticks in the mind. Like stepping ashore after a long period at sea and feeling as though the ground beneath you is swaying, so there seems to be a period of mental turbulence upon reaching the end of Moby-Dick, as the thoughts continue to splash around inside your head. It is a memorable literary voyage.