Genre: Adventure, Classics, Madness
Narrative Style: First person but with soliloquies, encyclopedic entries and stage plays.
Synopsis: Ishmael is looking to join the crew of a whaling ship. When he agrees to join the crew of the Pequod, he is warned by the strange and slightly scary Elijah that he may be making a mistake. Ishmael ignores this warning and sails away under Captain Ahab who is obsessed with capturing the great white whale, Moby Dick.
Time on Shelf: This is one of the books we seem to have had forever. I’m not sure whether my husband bought it or if I did. Certainly, it has been there every time we’ve moved house suggesting it’s been with us for about twenty years.
This was a strange book. In some ways, it was exactly as you might expect – an adventure where a focused to the point of insanity captain takes his crew on a chase across the oceans hoping to gain revenge on the whale that took his leg. However, if it was only that, it would be a much shorter book. There are also long chapters on the nature of whales, on their biology and psychology, there are chapters written as scenes and soliloquies from a play. This is anything but a straight forward boys own adventure.
For a start, it is a good way in before Ishmael even gets on the ship. First of all, he arrives in New Bedford, needing a room for the night. The inn is overcrowded and he ends up spending the night with Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal who declares the next day that he and Ishmael are no married as they have spent the night together. There are a lot of detailed descriptions of Queequeg and his tattoos, as well as the other men at the inn, that seem full of longing. At first, Ishmael is nervous of Queequeg but he soon decides that it is better to ‘sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian’ and they decide to sail together. Once they have decided to sail on the Pequod, they are followed by Elijah who warns them against sailing with Captain Ahab, a warning they do not heed.
Captain Ahab proves to be focused on one thing only: revenge. Although they catch other whales – and we get in depth descriptions of the process – the real purpose of the voyage is to catch Moby Dick. Along the way, the Pequod meets nine other ships, all of which either add to the tension of trying to find Moby Dick or show some facet of Ahab’s personality. For example, they meet a captain who has lost his arm to the whale as Ahab has lost his leg. Later, they meet a ship whose captain is desperately trying to find his son who was in one of the whaling boats and is now missing. Ahab refuses to stop and help so focused is he on the search for the whale. This was a clever structural device, keeping the reader interested and showing Ahab’s growing mania.
Personally, I could have done without the descriptions of types of whales and the processes of whaling. As when I read 20000 Leagues Under The Sea, I felt they broke up the narrative and slowed down the pace. Not that they weren’t well written, they were and they give rise to questions such as what is a whale and indeed attempt to answer that question from different perspectives such as the whaleman, the philosopher and the scientist but they were still not really what I wanted from a work of fiction.
There is much to like about Moby Dick. It was easy to read and when there was action, it was well paced and exciting. The characters were suitably strange and intriguing and Ahab was completely monstrous. It described a range of different races, generally living in harmony, which was surely unusual in a book of that time. The ending was apt given Ahab’s insanity and determination to get the whale. I’m glad I read it but it will certainly be a while before I even think about whales again.