Moby Dick; or, The Whale

The stormy blue cover shows a small boat being capsized by a giant whale.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to absolutely no one.
– anonymous review of Moby Dick

by Ben H.

Moby Dick; or, The Whale, Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, is a perfect summer read. It’s long – good for those endless summer days at the beach. It’s a great conversation starter – good for extra time spent with family. It’s the source of many pop culture references – great for the extra entertainment consumption that sometimes happens in the summer. Lastly, it’s a great book full of memorable lines.  

Ishamel, of “call me Ishmael” fame, is the insightful and piquant narrator of this tragic seafaring saga of revenge. He joins Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, because he’s hit the doldrums. He tells us, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…I quietly take to the ship.” As one does when one feels down, Ishmael makes for Massachusetts and becomes a whaler.  

If he’s too interested in the semantics of whaling, I forgive him because he’s a fabulous companion, consistently thoughtful and funny. It’s through Ishmael that we meet the rest of the crew: Ahab, the peg-legged monomaniacal captain bent on revenge; Pip, the cabin-boy who loses himself in the vastness of the ocean; Starbuck, the weathered, faithful first mate; Stubb, the philosophizing, chain-smoking second mate; Flask; the steady, simple third mate; Fedallah, Ahab’s harpooner and “evil shadow;” Queequeg, Ishmael’s best friend, “wife,” and harpooner; Tashtego, Stubb’s harpooner and the one who falls into the squishy head of a dead whale; etc.  

Moby Dick has a great narrator, a wonderful crew of characters, and plenty of Shakespearean drama. Starbuck has a soliloquy worthy of Hamlet; Stubb and Flask have Dogberry-level banter about whales and Fedallah. Stubb also takes a turn as Mercutio when he has a Queen Mab moment. After Stubb describes his dream in detail, Flask responds with an appropriate, “I don’t know; it seems a sort of foolish to me, tho.'” Anyone who bores a friend, family member, or coworker with the details of a dream deserves the Flask treatment. 

Speaking of dreams, the giant squid sighting is a brief but memorable episode. Melville calls the squid the “Anak” of the cuttlefish tribe. His reference to a race of giants is one of many biblical references. With one word, Melville describes the squid and sets an ancient and mysterious tone.

Another perfectly haunting episode happens when Ahab works the crew into a fervor on the quarterdeck. He stabs a gold coin high into the mast, promises it to the one who first sights the white whale, and gives a demonic revenge speech. His speech, and the healthy amount of grog he sloshes around, sets off pandemonium and “infernal orgies.” Starbuck, too stoic to partake in such revelry, remarks, “heathen crew…the white whale is their demogorgon…” Try googling demogorgon without getting lost in an avalanche of Stranger Things fan sites. Starbuck, ever the ray of sunshine, adds, “Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee.” 

I’ve highlighted a few episodes to provide you, gentle reader, with trenchant examples of the mood of the novel; it is equal parts mystical, dark and humorous, and quotidian. 

The narrative falls into a pattern: look for a whale, find a whale, kill a whale (unsurprisingly, Moby Dick is not safe for animal lovers). The Pequod also encounters a surprising number of other whaling ships: Jereboam, Rachel, Jungfrau, Delight, Rose Bud, etc. The suspense builds as Ahab begins to hear of Moby Dick sightings from the other captains. Melville continues to up the tension by scattering prophecies and Julius Caesar-level augurs of doom throughout the text.  

As I mentioned in the introduction to this interminably long book review, Moby Dick casts a long shadow. For example, in the The X Files (the best show of all time), Scully’s dad’s nickname for her is Starbuck. Once you’ve read Moby Dick, you’ll make a fun connection between Mulder and Ahab. Is Scully the Starbuck to Mulder’s Ahab? Will Mulder’s quest doom them both? 

Another fun example: Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1975 film about a giant bloodthirsty shark. At one point, the brave but foolish men hunting a giant shark in a tiny boat sing a little song – first sung by the crew of the Pequod:  

Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies! / Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain! 

One last reference is a little out there, but for those of you who play videogames, I feel that the entire catalog of Dark Souls games is rife with thematic references to Moby Dick. If the pop culture references aren’t enough to draw you in, there are tons of one-liners perfect for inspiring the armchair philosopher in all of us: 

  • “But clear truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter” 
  • “Never dream with thy hand on the helm!” 
  • “Away, and bring us napkins!” 
  • “Oh! My friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life…” 
  • “Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?” 

My wife told me not to spoil the ending, so I won’t. If you want to know, set sail for your local branch and pick up a copy! If you’ve made it through this Chapter Chats review, you can make it through Moby Dick!

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

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