I have mixed feelings about Moby Dick. I found the book funny, clever, thoughtful, gripping, tedious, verbose, tiresome, and obtuse.
Melville’s classic is about the chase of a mystical white whale named Moby Dick by Captain Ahab, a “monomaniac” (Melville’s favorite description) hell-bent on killing the creature that took his leg. The narrator, Ishmael, tells of the voyage of the Pequod, starting in Nantucket and traveling the world by sea.
Moby Dick is many books in one. To my mind, too many books. The compelling adventure of a madman chasing a mysterious white whale is interspersed with encyclopedic chapters explaining more features of the whale, the ship, and the whaling trade than I ever wanted to know. There are also many philosophic musings. Some I found interesting, such as the chapter on the color white, and Ahab’s musings on the mercy insanity provides.
Captain Ahab speaks to the blacksmith, who has lived through great tragedy:
“Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient with all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?”
I enjoyed the parts describing Ishmael’s unusual friendship with a “savage,” Queequeg. He goes through a fascinating thought process when Queequeg invites him to participate in prayer to his god, Yojo. Ishmael decides that as a good Christian, he must treat the Pagan as he would like to be treated, so, as he says, “I must turn idolator.” I was fascinated with this respect for other faiths in 1851 that we often see missing today.
While a good many aspects of the story had a great impact and will always stay with me, some parts were so slow and so dry that it took all I had to finish the book. In fact, I had trouble following much of the book and had to resort to reading Sparknotes summaries of each chapter just to understand what I had just read.
All in all, I am glad I read and finished the book, but I would only recommend it to those dedicated to the study of literature.