Review: Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’

Moby-Dick is another book that transcends summary. Ahab, Ishmael, and the eponymous white whale are staples of American literature, not to mention the college classroom. Even pop-culture knows its Melville. Want famous lines? Wrath of Khan‘s got you covered. Need a one-line summary of Ahab’s actions and their outcome? Try Picard’s speech to Lily in Star Trek: First Contact. And let’s not forget Dana Scully’s remarkable character analysis of Captain Ahab (and Agent Mulder) found in season three of The X-Files.

So why read the book when you can find everything you need in just three short YouTube videos? That’s exactly what I asked myself about four pages into the novel and it’s what I kept asking myself all the way to the end.

Melville begins by teaching readers how to say “whale” in thirteen languages, including Spanish, Dutch, and Erromangoan, and follows this information with fourteen pages of whale quotes. Then, in case you’re not begging for mercy just yet, he spends 600 pages waxing eloquent on whale taxonomy.

Of course, Melville doesn’t write about just whale taxonomy. He also includes friendly cannibals, a 469-word sentence on the color white, and more sexual innuendos than I care to count. (If you don’t believe me on that last part, check out this article, but beware, you’ll never see Melville the same way again. Also, slight warning for the language.)

Despite these delightful additions, Moby-Dick was terrible. I hated it. I wanted to pull my hair out. I have no idea why it’s considered THE American novel. As my boss pointed out one day at work, “America has the most square acreage with the least potential to see a whale than any country except maybe Russia. It can’t be the great American novel.” Call me a bad English major, but I agree.

The thing that kills me about Moby-Dick is that it has so much potential. As the novel’s celebrity status indicates, its basic premise is sound; Melville has a great story, and a great character, too. Ahab’s obsession is gripping, and Melville’s descriptions of him electrifying: “Tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding; his eyes glowing like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruin; untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forhead of heaven” (Chapter 132). Had the whole book been like this single sentence, I never would’ve put it down.

Unfortunately, it devotes more time to whale skulls and the blacksmith’s backstory than the actual pursuit of Moby Dick, making Melville’s magnum opus a case of too much pomp and not enough circumstance.

So why did I finish reading it? Well, for one thing, I’m just that stubborn. At some point in the last twenty-five days, finishing Moby-Dick became my own white whale, and while I can’t say I enjoyed the chase, I sure did savor the victory.

What’s more, I can check another book off my 2015 Reading Challenge. And with a 2/5 stars rating, I’ll let you guess which category Moby-Dick fulfills.

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