I blogged earlier about my difficulty in getting through Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. I have since finished the book. This is my final review, exploring why none of it, including the actual revenge story, holds up:
THANK GOODNESS IT FINALLY ENDED.
This is not a novel.
This is a nonfiction series of informational and philosophical essays, with a few scenes of drama thrown in to convince the reader to slog through the author’s exhaustive thoughts about the whaling industry. It includes, among others, a chapter on the types of oil harvested from whales, several chapters on the types of whales, a chapter on the harpoons used to hunt whales, a chapter on the rope attached to the harpoons, a chapter on the backup harpoons, and five chapters in a row on the anatomy of a whale’s head.
In short, it’s about as tedious as reading, well, an encyclopedia of whaling.
Maybe you’re still interested in reading the book for its literary value. To be fair, there are some clever turns of phrase and beautifully crafted sentences.
There are also many sentences that ramble on for so long, with up to half a dozen unrelated subordinate clauses, that they are nearly indecipherable.
Let’s talk about the story of the novel, such as it is. Most of the story happens in the final fifteen percent of the book, with a few scenes scattered throughout the whaling encyclopedia (to remind the reader that there is, in fact, a plot, I suppose). There’s also a good chunk of text at the beginning of the novel describing the narrator’s meeting with a harpooner and how they joined the crew of the whaling ship. This part is tolerable, if not especially interesting.
The narrative has some problems. First, Ishmael, the narrator, is apparently psychic, for he frequently describes scenes and conversations at which he was not present. Second, he doesn’t actually do anything noteworthy throughout the entire book; he is a passive observer of the other characters. This isn’t unusual in classic literature, but it does make the reader wonder why we’re following his point of view at all.
The other characters, with one or two exceptions, could be written collectively as “the guys.” Few have any distinguishing features, and fewer take any action to affect the course of the story. Starbuck may be the only truly dynamic character in the novel, as his frustration and worry about Ahab’s revenge quest begin to take a toll on him. His conversation with Ahab toward the end, in which he attempts to convince Ahab to abandon the mad adventure and return home, is a touching and evocative scene. (Of course Ishmael shouldn’t have known it even happened, but I already made that point.)
Regarding the quest itself, there is one major problem:
This is Ahab’s first attempt to get revenge on Moby Dick. He lost his leg in his immediately preceding voyage. Since the man is 58 years old, this means his revenge quest has only occupied a small percentage of his adult life.
Suddenly this epic tale of revenge feels a lot less epic. Rather than a lifelong grudge, the stakes have suddenly dropped to encompass more of an immediate anger toward a very recent event. This is not deep, premeditated revenge; it is hot-blooded retaliation, the sort of thing that makes a man shout, “I’m gonna kill him!” when his neighbor drives over his lawn.
Second, if he’s only been harboring this grudge for a year or so, why did it take over his whole life like this? We don’t know. The book never tells us. The brief glimpses into Ahab’s character and personality focus on informing us that yes, he is obsessed with Moby Dick, without every bothering to delve into why. “Well, he lost his leg.” Okay. He still captains a ship. He still stands watch on deck. He still commands a whaling boat. The loss of a limb doesn’t seem to have changed his life at all, so why does it bother him so? The book doesn’t know, so neither does the reader.
This, in my opinion, is the biggest shortcoming of the novel. We are told repeatedly that Ahab has a “monomania” for hunting Moby Dick. (Melville really, really likes that word.) We are shown bits of that fixation from time to time. But the root of a good revenge story — why the revenge matters; what is at stake — is never developed. Thus, when the final confrontation comes, it’s difficult to care whether Ahab makes it or not, as we have no reason to be invested in his success.
In short, Melville seems far more interested in telling the reader things, rather than showing why those things happen. Except when it comes to the work of whaling – then he will explain in painstaking detail exactly why everything happens.
If you’re looking for a long, classic novel to read for self-enrichment, pick up Les Miserables or War and Peace instead.
If you’re an avid reader of classics and want to check this one off your list … good luck.
If you’re one of the people who genuinely enjoyed this novel, congrats. I have a dictionary you might like to read next.