Moby-Dick, or, The Whale

by Herman Melville

Other authorsBarry Moser (Illustrator), James D. Hart (Contributor), Andrew Hoyem (Designer)
Hardcover, 1979

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Berkeley : University of California Press, [1981] c1979.

Description

A young seaman joins the crew of the whaling ship Pequod, led by the fanatical Captain Ahab in pursuit of the white whale Moby Dick.

Media reviews

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Forfatter: Herman Melville Moby Dick I «Kall meg Ismael. For noen år siden - akkurat når det var, er likegyldig - bestemte jeg meg for å gå til sjøs og lære verdenshavene å kjenne. Jeg hadde lite eller ingenting å leve av, og ikke noe særlig som interesserte meg på land. Gå til sjøs - på den måten har jeg ofte drevet tungsinn på flukt og regulert blodomløpet.» Slik begynner verdens kanskje mest kjente roman, romanen som stiller de vanskeligste og viktigste spørsmål; om det ondes og godes natur og om viljens mulighet til å trosse skjebnen. Moby Dick II Historien om kaptein Akabs glødende hat til den hvite hvalen fortsetter: «Riggen levde. Mastetoppene var som høye palmer, var vidt behengt med armer og ben. Enkelte av sjøfolkene klynget seg til spirene med den ene hånden, mens de utålmodig viftet med den andre. Noen satt ytterst ute på de gyngende rærne og skjermet øynene mot det skarpe solskinnet. Hele riggen var full av dødelige mennesker, rede og modne til å ta imot sin skjebne. Å, hvor de stirret ut gjennom det uendelige blå, for å oppdage det vesen som kanskje skulle ødelegge dem!» Herman Melville Herman Melville (1819-1891), amerikansk forfatter, essayist og poet. Melville blir ansett å være blant de fremste amerikanske forfattere gjennom tidene, og hans hovedverk Moby Dick (1851) regnes som en av verdenslitteraturens største romaner. Samtidens forfattere hadde gått på de «riktige» skolene, mens Melvilles bakgrunn var annerledes. Han ble født inn i en rikmannsfamilie, men måtte tidlig greie seg selv. Som ung gutt gikk han til sjøs og sa senere; «havet ble mitt universitet». Melville hadde store reiser og merkelig eventyr bak seg da Moby Dick kom ut. Han hadde seilt i over fire år, var to ganger rundt Kapp Horn og hadde levd blant kannibaler etter at han deserterte på Marquesas-øyene. Melville kjente virkelig til det livet han beskriver i boken, et farefullt liv i jakten på havets gull, spermasetthvalens verdifulle olje.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
5) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
This was my second reading of Moby-Dick and I still do not love the book! So much has been written about it since it regularly features in lists of the top 50 best books ever written and top ten lists of American novels. Moby-Dick has not always been a critical success and received mixed reviews when published in 1851. It was only with the advent of modernism some 70 years later, that it's perceived difficulties were seen as strengths and forerunners to the modernist movement. D H Lawrence was amongst the first of the British critics to acclaim it as a work of the first order. The difficulties that were apparent in that first publication are still there in the book today and although the modern reader will have absorbed many of them, for example; fragmentation of plot, use of intertextuality and themes of loss and madness, they still give the feel of a novel pushing the boundaries, almost experimental in its conception.

A major theme of the novel is the collection and use of knowledge as exemplified by many chapters on the anatomy, nature, habitat and man's use of the living and dead whale. There are chapters too on the workings of a whale ship and details of the hazards in chasing their prey in the small whale boats. These chapters are interspersed with the narrative of Ahab's obsession with killing Moby-Dick and so there is a juxtaposition between the hunt for the white whale and a quest for knowledge. The information chapters then feed into the narrative and are themselves driven by it; the quest and the hunt. Rarely are the information/knowledge chapters less than fascinating reading. The narrator Ishmael/Melville's kleptomaniac use of metaphors, the richness of the prose and engrossing facts about whales and whaling should hold many readers attention while waiting for the story to continue. Some of Melville's best writing can be found in these chapters, for example "The Whiteness of the Whale"

"Bethink thee of the albatross: whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in the imagination? Not Coleridge first threw that spell: but God';s great, unflattering laureate, Nature
Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger, large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity of a thousand monarchs in his lofty, overscorning carriage. He was the elected Xerxes of vast herds of wild horses, whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies......."

This quest for knowledge allows Melville to display his own knowledge of literature, of which he takes full advantage. However engrossing these chapters may be they do interrupt the narrative flow and this has been perceived as one of the difficulties in reading Moby-Dick. Melville's syntax also presents some difficulties: all those commas. When reading I naturally pause when I come to a comma, but there are so many in patches of Melville's prose that it makes some sentences seem disjointed and ungainly.

It was a hard life on board a whaleship with voyages lasting three or four years as the search for whales to fill the casks with oil became more difficult, it was an environment where death was not unusual. It should be no surprise then that Melville; a whale man himself should not populate the Pequod with sympathetic characters. Only Starbuck and Queequeg are allowed to show much humanity; the narrator Ishmael of the famous first line becomes almost a non character when the Pequod leaves harbour. There is no love, no female characters and very little sense of finer feelings. This is indeed a man's world.

"You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps" was a popular slogan pinned to many work notice boards in the 1970's. It would certainly apply to the Pequod. Ahab the monomaniacal captain afflicted with his "fatal pride" is almost totally insane, his harpooneer Fedallah the "Dark Shadow" could be the devil incarnate. Pip the cabin boy loses his sanity completely and shacks up with Ahab and Stubb...........well he is blissfully unaware of how crazy he is. A conversation with Flask the third mate goes like this:

"Why don't you be sensible Flask? It's easy to be sensible; why don't ye, then? any man with half an eye can be sensible".
"I don't know that, Stubb. You sometimes find it rather hard."
(I don't think I have missed any of Melville's commas)

Melville's characters do not develop as such; they just get crazier and this craziness turns to madness as the mood gets darker the nearer they get to Moby-Dick. Melville leaves us in no doubt with his stage like portentions, hints and omens that the Pequod is heading towards it's doom. I felt no pity for them; my sympathies had a long time ago transferred to the white whale; that wondrous creature of nature so lovingly descibed by Ishmael.

It is good to be aware of Melvilles sense of humour and how he uses this to great effect in Moby Dick. The humour is there right at the start with Ishmael's discomfort about his sleeping arrangements with the cannibal. They become the best of friends in bed and Ishmael is driven to breaking down the door when Queequeg doesn't answer him, only to find in this instance that Queequeg has fallen into a meditative trance in front of a heathen idol and is oblivious of anything around him. Yes it is funny but it is also tinged with the theme of homo-eroticism that surfaces again later in the book. Melville skillfully uses humour to reflect more weighty themes and like all good humorists there is always some uncertainty about whether some incidents are meant to be funny. I found much to laugh at and in Stubb, Melville has created one of the great comic characters in literature

This is an American novel that reeks of the pioneer spirit. A melting pot of influences that spill out in Melville's prose. A new country bursting at the seams with new ideas and practical know-how and a thirst for knowledge. Old Europe appears dead in the water as the Pequod meets German, French and English whaleships on the open seas and none of them are spared the satire that comes from Melville's pen. They are redundant in the face of the new spirit of the Americans. This is also reflected in Melville's drive to produce a mighty book; one where he has the freedom to break from the confines of the European novel:

"Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme: we expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it" (chapter 104: The Fossil Whale)

There is however a darker side to this relentless pushing ahead this unfettered freedom to achieve certain goals and maybe this is recognised by Melville. From my vantage point in the 21st century I can see a correlation between the whale hunts and the slaughter of the native Indians as land grabbing on the American continent was in full flow. The better equipped American soldiers were able to kill and plunder from the native Indians almost at will and it was only when they suffered a reverse that the Indians were named and branded as evil before being hunted down. The Indian wars were a feature of American life at the time Melville was writing and near the start of the novel there was that curious wigwam on board the Pequod.

Melville was a voracious reader of books and his extensive knowledge of them is evident throughout Moby-Dick. Shakespeare and the Bible were major reference points and and his re-interpretation of Jonah and the Whale in Father Mapple's sermon is a tour de force. There are many similar highlights throughout the novel and so many layers of meaning to be uncovered. I read the Penguin English Library Edition which has a commentary of notes stretching to 300 pages; enough to keep the amateur scholar busy through many a long night.

Moby-Dick is a thoroughly original novel, years ahead of its time. It bears re-reading as many times as you may wish to do so. It will continue to reveal new ideas, new meanings, new pleasures and new patches of wonderful writing that you may be amazed that you had not noticed before. It is a treasure-trove but alas I fear it is a novel that I will never love. Perhaps if I was an American................

.
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LibraryThing member ctpress
Five reasons why I like Moby-Dick

1. The humor: Not many mentions this, but this american classic is actually hilarious. From the descriptions of Ishmael unwittingly sharing a bed with the cannibal-"savage" Queequeg, Father Mabbles sermon on Jonah (brimming with doom and damnation), Stubbs' raging commands of the fishermen - Ahabs insanity - oh, I just smile and laugh a lot reading it.

2. The whale: Obviously. With this wild, sea monster Melville has created an immortal symbol - as in Spielbergs movie Jaws - Moby Dick is anticipated for a long time - actually only surfacing in the very end of the novel, but before that Melville has painted such a living description of that dreaded Leviathan. Both very real but also a mythic being encapsulating all what man dreads or hold dear. Whatever it represents to the reader. For me mostly I like the idea of something transcendent beyond our grasp that we can't control or fully describe or understand. Untamable. And of course we have the great finale, when we see Moby Dick in action. We need a bigger boat, could be a quote from Moby Dick and not Jaws. Oh, what a whale.

3. The tedious parts that totally disregard or interrups the narrative. All those chapters with whale classifications etc. that students dread and have cursed over. Well, not all these chapters, but in fact a lot of them are really not that tedious. Melville constantly blend the down-to-earth scientific explanations with philosophical, spiritual and Old Testament musings - as in the chapter The whiteness of the Whale. It's so brilliant.

4. Captain Ahab: Insane, stubborn, selfish. Totally absorbed in his doomed quest for revenge - like an obsessed wild man that has lost any grib on reality, he's beyond redemption. Another immortal Melville-creation. Slowly Ishmael realizes what expedition his resless nature has embarked on. Exploration comes with a prize.

5. The interpretation: While I write these lines someone on a university somewhere are struggling to find the deeper meaning of Moby-Dick. A horror novel, a microcosmos of civilization searching to tame nature, a "modern" greek tragedy warning of the passions of human beings, Old Testament judgment story. What does the whale represent? What is Melville up to? [Moby Dick] seems to have so many layers of meaning and possible interpretations. Great.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
I can't remember ever feeling like I finally crossed the finish line after reading a book, but that was my experience with Moby Dick. I was determined to chase it down and harpoon it, even if it took me down with it.

It was published in 1851 and must have a zillion or so reviews and papers written about it, so I'll only make a few comments. Apparently Melville thought no one had really explained whales well enough to the public, and this novel was the perfect opportunity to do so. And he took full advantage of the opportunity, from noble forehead and missing nose (that's why they have blowholes) to the tippy tip of the tail (fluke). We get to find out about spermaceti, a white waxy substance in a sperm whale's head cavity that was used for candles and ointments (sperm whales can internally heat it or cool it to help them descend or ascend in the water), and ambergris, another waxy substance produced in the digestive system, often used in perfumes back then (now we use synthetics). Ishmael is effusive about ambergris's wonderful floral smell, despite its somewhat icky origins. Chapter after chapter of the novel educates us enthusiastically about one whale body part or another, or the written history of whales, or artistic depictions of whales, or weather vanes in the shape of a whale, and on and on. I think there may have been a whale merchandise store tucked in there somewhere.

And what about Ishmael? We know that's what we're supposed to call him, but who is this guy? An experienced sailor who decides to try being on a whaler, okay. But how does he come to know everything there is to know about whales, and an awful lot about other things as well? Shouldn't he be a university professor somewhere? And what a vocabulary! This is not a sailor you could find in a catalog. And Ahab never seems to notice him, probably because he's all caught up in debating with Starbuck, then making goo-goo eyes at him as they share deep soulful thoughts, or telling Stubb to clam up for god's sake.

Am I glad I read it? Sure. There are long stretches that are terrific, and wow, do I know a lot about whales now. Plus I just couldn't imagine showing up at the great library in the sky and saying no when the librarian asks, you've of course read Moby Dick, haven't you? I say no, my request for a celestial library card is rejected, and I end up you know where. So yes, I'm glad I read it.
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LibraryThing member upsidedown
There are plenty of overrated, canonized books. I had been going along assuming this was one of them-- a book as long as Anna Karenina, but written by an American? Guffaw. Unreadable! I had also been under the assumption that this was an Old Man and the Sea kind of overplayed metaphor-- yes, yes, a man wishes to kill a particular whale. This must be about the eternal struggle between, er, man and nature, or man and his other. This must be a boring rumination about the useless of, er, revenge?
Instead, I have been astonished by how experimental this "novel" book turned out. The first few chapters are beautifully captivating and narrative-driven. We have an affable narrator as our presumed main character. He finds a dear friend, Queequeg, in a series of blundered misunderstandings. And then we are introduced to his challenge-- to survive his first whaling voyage.
Melville must have bored easily of such narrative devices. Our narrator/main character disappears soon after, as easily replaced by an omniscient point of view. The particularity of these characters is equally unimportant. Instead, this is an encyclopedia of whaling, a philosophy on travel, a history of the Eastern US and much else of the world, a commentary on commercialism, and an elegy to hope. What I found so relentless about the narrative was its disjointedness, its inability to stay with the story, as though it too were tossed fitfully in the wake of an enormous whale.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
“We do not judge a masterpiece by its flaws, but by its virtues.”

That line is included in the introduction to my copy of Moby Dick and it was an incredibly helpful thing to remember. In my opinion, the book is flawed, of course it is. It’s a massive undertaking that covers many themes, writing styles and subjects. Melville was incredibly ambitious in what he tried to do with the novel and in taking on so many different formats and points-of-view, some of them inevitably failed, but in spite of that, the book has an undeniable magnetism.

At times I felt like I was slogging through chapters. It was a bit like cross country skiing. It’s hard work, occasionally you hit a slick spot a slide along quickly, but mainly you're just pulling yourself forward slowly, with all of your energy and strength. Then the final 20 chapters were like a downhill streak. They went so quickly that it almost made me forget the struggle through the middle section.

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.”

The main thing I took away from this book was the beauty of the writing, like the above quote. Sometimes Melville would ramble on about the details of whale anatomy or the perils of the whaling profession, but he does it in such an eloquent way. Every time I got a bit bogged down in all Melville's facts and ideas, his writing grounded me. He has a beautiful way of phrasing things, but it often seemed like he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to educate or entertain his readers. In chapters like 32, where he gave a lesson in the different types of whales, I got bored. Then, a few chapter later in 42, he talked about the whiteness of the whale and how that heightens its terrifying nature because white is a color we associate with beauty, innocence, royalty, etc. When that’s paired with a murderous beast it makes it all the more horrifying.

“…that heightened hideousness, it might be said, only rises from the circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast. But even assuming all this to be true; yet, were it not for the whiteness, you would not have that intensified terror.”

On to some of the specifics in the book, which will include some SPOILERS.

I was really glad Melville explained exactly how they track Moby Dick, because finding a specific whale in a vast ocean seemed far-fetched to me at first. Once he explained how they track the drifting of the whale’s food and the tides it made a lot more sense.

I think the fact that Ahab had a wife and child makes his madness so much more tragic. Towards the end he talks about the fact that he widowed his wife the day he married her. I’ve heard of a book called Ahab’s Wife and now I’m curious if that’s any good. Has anyone read it?

For me, the pinnacle of Ahab’s madness came in ch.128 when he turns down the request from a captain of a fellow whaling ship (the Rachel) to help look for his 12-year-old son that is on a missing boat. This is the first time Ahab's obsession really hurts someone else. He makes a conscience decision to choose his pursuit of the whale over helping someone in need and to me that proves that he's lost all perspective. He's refusing to help a man find his son, when he is a father and should know how important this is. This is where he crosses the line and he never really returns from that decision. In a strange way Ahab is both the villain and hero of the book. He is admired and feared, triumphant and broken. He has survived a whale attack, but can’t seem to move on with his life. He must have been a good captain at some point to gain the loyalty and respect of Starbuck, but we never really see that side of him.

“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

I am so grateful for Melville's sense of humor. The book has some wonderful elements, but without a bit of humor I think it would have felt incredibly heavy. The first section is the most entertaining, but Melville throws a few comedic bits in every so often. I thought the section about Queequeg’s coffin was hilarious. The harpooner is near death with sickness and requests a coffin be made for his burial. Then, after lying in it to confirm it will suffice, he miraculously recovers, declaring that anyone can get better if they decide to. Then he uses the coffin to store his belongings in! That wry sense of humor was sprinkled throughout the book, especially at the beginning.

“Heaven have mercy on all of us – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked in the head, and sadly need mending.”

In the end of the story the coffin returns to save Ishmael’s life. How amazing that something created for one man’s death ends up being another man’s salvation. I’m still in shock when I think about what Ishmael experienced when he watched his friends and shipmates die and was then stranded in the ocean, surrounded by sharks, for two days. It seems like madness would be inevitable.

Melville created a wide and strange cast of characters; Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Bildad, Tashtego, Daggoo, Peleg, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, and all the others connected with the ill-fated Pequod. They grew on me throughout the story, especially Starbuck with his misplaced loyalty to Ahab. He had a lot of wisdom.

“‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

There are so many breath-taking descriptions in this book. The mother whales nursing, the two dead whale heads hanging off the Pequod, the descriptions of whales’ eyes and ears. All of it was odd, but also interesting. Melville brought a foreign world into my home and made me feel like I was seeing these strange new sights along with Ishmael.

The murder of the old whale in ch.81 is one particularly vicious example of this. It shocks not only the reader, but Ishmael too. After pages and pages of hearing about it in theory, to see the kill actually happen is startling and makes it all seem so much more real.

“For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.

As we near the end of the story Starbuck’s desperate attempts to shake Ahab from his obsession are heartbreaking. He tries again and again to make him turn back and drives the point home by saying that Moby Dick is not pursuing Ahab. It’s easy to forget this because Moby Dick is painted as the villain, lashing out against Ahab and taking his leg. In reality, he is just s whale trying to save himself. It’s Ahab’s one-sided fight and his actions have tragic repercussions for everyone else.

When people talk about Moby Dick they always say it isn't really about a whale and I always thought that was silly. I thought, well yes, I get that there are other issues and themes, but really, it is about a whale. But now I understand, the hunt for the whale is part of the story, but it is seriously about so much more than that.

I have always been curious about this book and I’m so glad I finally read it. My curiosity has been sated and it lived up to my expectations. Yes, there are parts that drag. Yes, he talks a LOT about whaling. Yes, there is not a clear A to B kind of plot and the characters fade in and out of the narrative. But as much as Melville meanders and pontificates, in the end he’s created an epic story. It’s about obsession, man’s relationship with nature, revenge, religion, insanity and so much more.

And it is one strangely enthralling tale.

I’ll leave you with one of those amazing lines that made me fall for the book…

“These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”
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LibraryThing member baswood
This was my second reading of Moby-Dick and I still do not love the book! So much has been written about it since it regularly features in lists of the top 50 best books ever written and top ten lists of American novels. Moby-Dick has not always been a critical success and received mixed reviews when published in 1851. It was only with the advent of modernism some 70 years later, that it's perceived difficulties were seen as strengths and forerunners to the modernist movement. D H Lawrence was amongst the first of the British critics to acclaim it as a work of the first order. The difficulties that were apparent in that first publication are still there in the book today and although the modern reader will have absorbed many of them, for example; fragmentation of plot, use of intertextuality and themes of loss and madness, they still give the feel of a novel pushing the boundaries, almost experimental in its conception.

A major theme of the novel is the collection and use of knowledge as exemplified by many chapters on the anatomy, nature, habitat and man's use of the living and dead whale. There are chapters too on the workings of a whale ship and details of the hazards in chasing their prey in the small whale boats. These chapters are interspersed with the narrative of Ahab's obsession with killing Moby-Dick and so there is a juxtaposition between the hunt for the white whale and a quest for knowledge. The information chapters then feed into the narrative and are themselves driven by it; the quest and the hunt. Rarely are the information/knowledge chapters less than fascinating reading. The narrator Ishmael/Melville's kleptomaniac use of metaphors, the richness of the prose and engrossing facts about whales and whaling should hold many readers attention while waiting for the story to continue. Some of Melville's best writing can be found in these chapters, for example "The Whiteness of the Whale"

"Bethink thee of the albatross: whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in the imagination? Not Coleridge first threw that spell: but God';s great, unflattering laureate, Nature
Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger, large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity of a thousand monarchs in his lofty, overscorning carriage. He was the elected Xerxes of vast herds of wild horses, whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies......."

This quest for knowledge allows Melville to display his own knowledge of literature, of which he takes full advantage. However engrossing these chapters may be they do interrupt the narrative flow and this has been perceived as one of the difficulties in reading Moby-Dick. Melville's syntax also presents some difficulties: all those commas. When reading I naturally pause when I come to a comma, but there are so many in patches of Melville's prose that it makes some sentences seem disjointed and ungainly.

It was a hard life on board a whaleship with voyages lasting three or four years as the search for whales to fill the casks with oil became more difficult, it was an environment where death was not unusual. It should be no surprise then that Melville; a whale man himself should not populate the Pequod with sympathetic characters. Only Starbuck and Queequeg are allowed to show much humanity; the narrator Ishmael of the famous first line becomes almost a non character when the Pequod leaves harbour. There is no love, no female characters and very little sense of finer feelings. This is indeed a man's world.

"You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps" was a popular slogan pinned to many work notice boards in the 1970's. It would certainly apply to the Pequod. Ahab the monomaniacal captain afflicted with his "fatal pride" is almost totally insane, his harpooneer Fedallah the "Dark Shadow" could be the devil incarnate. Pip the cabin boy loses his sanity completely and shacks up with Ahab and Stubb...........well he is blissfully unaware of how crazy he is. A conversation with Flask the third mate goes like this:

"Why don't you be sensible Flask? It's easy to be sensible; why don't ye, then? any man with half an eye can be sensible".
"I don't know that, Stubb. You sometimes find it rather hard."
(I don't think I have missed any of Melville's commas)

Melville's characters do not develop as such; they just get crazier and this craziness turns to madness as the mood gets darker the nearer they get to Moby-Dick. Melville leaves us in no doubt with his stage like portentions, hints and omens that the Pequod is heading towards it's doom. I felt no pity for them; my sympathies had a long time ago transferred to the white whale; that wondrous creature of nature so lovingly descibed by Ishmael.

It is good to be aware of Melvilles sense of humour and how he uses this to great effect in Moby Dick. The humour is there right at the start with Ishmael's discomfort about his sleeping arrangements with the cannibal. They become the best of friends in bed and Ishmael is driven to breaking down the door when Queequeg doesn't answer him, only to find in this instance that Queequeg has fallen into a meditative trance in front of a heathen idol and is oblivious of anything around him. Yes it is funny but it is also tinged with the theme of homo-eroticism that surfaces again later in the book. Melville skillfully uses humour to reflect more weighty themes and like all good humorists there is always some uncertainty about whether some incidents are meant to be funny. I found much to laugh at and in Stubb, Melville has created one of the great comic characters in literature

This is an American novel that reeks of the pioneer spirit. A melting pot of influences that spill out in Melville's prose. A new country bursting at the seams with new ideas and practical know-how and a thirst for knowledge. Old Europe appears dead in the water as the Pequod meets German, French and English whaleships on the open seas and none of them are spared the satire that comes from Melville's pen. They are redundant in the face of the new spirit of the Americans. This is also reflected in Melville's drive to produce a mighty book; one where he has the freedom to break from the confines of the European novel:

"Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme: we expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it" (chapter 104: The Fossil Whale)

There is however a darker side to this relentless pushing ahead this unfettered freedom to achieve certain goals and maybe this is recognised by Melville. From my vantage point in the 21st century I can see a correlation between the whale hunts and the slaughter of the native Indians as land grabbing on the American continent was in full flow. The better equipped American soldiers were able to kill and plunder from the native Indians almost at will and it was only when they suffered a reverse that the Indians were named and branded as evil before being hunted down. The Indian wars were a feature of American life at the time Melville was writing and near the start of the novel there was that curious wigwam on board the Pequod.

Melville was a voracious reader of books and his extensive knowledge of them is evident throughout Moby-Dick. Shakespeare and the Bible were major reference points and and his re-interpretation of Jonah and the Whale in Father Mapple's sermon is a tour de force. There are many similar highlights throughout the novel and so many layers of meaning to be uncovered. I read the Penguin English Library Edition which has a commentary of notes stretching to 300 pages; enough to keep the amateur scholar busy through many a long night.

Moby-Dick is a thoroughly original novel, years ahead of its time. It bears re-reading as many times as you may wish to do so. It will continue to reveal new ideas, new meanings, new pleasures and new patches of wonderful writing that you may be amazed that you had not noticed before. It is a treasure-trove but alas I fear it is a novel that I will never love. Perhaps if I was an American................

.
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LibraryThing member Choccy
This book is not as adventurous as I thought before. It turns out to be even more. If you're a biology freak, you'll love this book. Maybe one-fourth part is about whale anatomy, especially sperm whale. Blubber, bones, spouts, nose, teeth, fins, you name it. References from numerous books about whales are included.

Another one-fourth is about the technical details of a whaling-ship, the tools used to catch a whale and the process of getting oil out of it. Kinda gross and horrible. Poor whales. I don't want to be a whale in those days (1850s). Maybe the only thing I ever love from a whaling ship is that the journey seems to be more lively compared with slave-ship, a ship-of-war, or a merchant ship. Moreover, one whale ship seemed to be always in the most friendly term with another.

Another one-fourth is basically a description followed by reflection on the crews and officers, especially their infamous captain, Ahab, who swore that he would chase the whale that had made him lose one leg (also destroyed his pride, I suppose) until the end of the world. The words used are so poetic, the narrative is filled with soliloquies, which will become awfully boring and unpractical if used in modern days.

The last one-fourth is the adventure part. Yay, finally ;p
Of which, kinda exhilarating. The life dynamics in the ship, which is named Pequod, were great. I have to say that Melville should have give more length to this part of the book, because I still think there's much to be told, such as the interaction between the crews and the exotic pagan harpooners (who does not love Queequeg anyway). Blame me not, I love adventurous stories.

However, Melville had his own reason. He did not want Moby Dick to become a mere adventure story. Definitely not. It is also not a "preachy" book that told us not to drag innocent people into our own dark ambition, like Ahab. It is more than that. It gives us a more thorough explanation on how it feels to become a whaling-ship crew, how it feels to have a voyage around the world to seek whales (and what not) plus what is this Leviathan called whale really about.

It took me a month to finish this book. Yeah, it's not THAT long, only 540 pages or something. A bit tiresome (especially with the biology lesson and technical details), but it's worth it. The climax/ending is breathtaking, I assure you...
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LibraryThing member Clurb
I was really enjoying this for the first few chapters, but then Melville seemed to think that rather than writing the middle piece of plot, he'd be better off splurging dry, uninteresting essays on whaling and sealife across several hundred pages. Then suddenly, a few chapters away from the back cover, I hit storyline again and took the razor blade away from my wrist.

Yes, it's layered and full of symbolism and metaphor, and if you were studying this dutifully you'd get more enjoyment out of it than I did, but it's really not the sort of book that works well as a light summer read.
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LibraryThing member endlessforms
I'm grateful I was never required to read this for school, because it's such a crazy dense chaotic euphoria of complex symbolism, that the reader needs to be voluntarily engaged with the insanity on every level.

In reality the story of Ahab and Moby Dick is a frame story; I could easily believe that most of the text was written without the story or those characters explicity in mind. Melville's nuts and obviously has Shakespeare whirling in his brain as he writes -- many passages are sylistically straight out of Macbeth or King Lear.

The narrator -- or the author -- seems as monomaniacally obsessed with whales and whaling as Ahab is with the White Whale. If you're not willing to be drawn into that obsession, it's probably not going to be a successful text.

There's something Italo Calvino says, about the longing for the naive reading experience -- that books are spoiled by coming to them with expectations. Nothing creates expectations like "The Great American Novel", or "You Must Read This and Love it Or You Get An F", or many of the other accretions which spoil the way we approach literature. Moby-Dick, in particular, I think, requires the naive and willing engagement of the reader.
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LibraryThing member FlorenceArt
I found this book disappointing and not very well written. I didn't bother to finish it, though it wasn't that bad really, just not good enough to uphold my interest and offset the annoyingly old-fashioned ideas (about whales, for example).
LibraryThing member llasram
Amazing, amazing book. Deep in history, lore, humor, character, and symbolism, it's easy to see why this is an enduring classic. The meticulous details of whaling many complain about seem to me essential -- wrapping the novel in a time capsule which captures just what a whaling voyage was and entailed. Even the most prosaic chapters are written with a keen ear for Ishmael's voice, subtly revealing little pearls about the man telling us this story. And the story itself -- such vividness of language, imagery, and emotion, such a compelling depiction of charismatic madness. The strength of Ahab's personality practically forces its way out of every page he appears upon. "No, no—no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" *shiver*.… (more)
LibraryThing member upstairsgirl
I do not enjoy Melville. I know I should, because he plays with language in a way I normally find very appealing, and I don't think his plots are uninteresting. I... just can't stand the way he writes most of the time, I guess.

I had high hopes for Moby Dick, because it starts out very, very funny, and I was hoping I'd learn that I simply hadn't appreciated Melville when I encountered him in high school. But the book quickly gets mired down in hundreds of pages describing the whale. Is the whale a fish or not? What fish is it related to? What fish is it not related to? What is the natural history of the whale? What are some famous whale stories? How do we hunt the whale? What are the mind-numblingly minute details of the whale's anatomy? Of the whale-ship's anatomy? It goes on and on. For hundreds of pages. Every once in a while, they catch a whale, something weird and ominous happens, and/or Ahab behaves like a lunatic. I wish I could say the ending made the long slog worth it, but I just didn't care any more at that point. I was reading to be able to say I'd finished.

I wonder if I'd have been able to take Ishmael's rambling more seriously if he hadn't seemed so completely insane and if he hadn't come across as such an unsympathetic character. He is, it appears, the inexperienced one of the crew, and yet not only is that inexperience not used to introduce the reader organically to the world of whaling, but it's neophyte Ishmael himself holding forth at interminable length in incredibly minute detail about everything. It's off-putting, somehow, as if the narrator is bent on making sure the reader feels even more outside the story than he himself is. (This is an interesting trick, but perhaps not an effective one.) It's hard to know how to take Ishmael - the way in which the beginning of the tale is related suggests that Ishmael isn't a reliable narrator, but that's followed by 500 pages of "research" that pleads to be taken incredibly seriously. It was frustrating, and I think it made it impossible for me to pay attention to the story underneath.

I don't think it's a bad book, but I just didn't enjoy it much at all, which is disappointing to me. I wanted to like it, I think. I'm glad to have finally read it, but I don't think I'll read it again anytime soon.
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LibraryThing member TadAD
I will concede that this is an American classic...even the American classic...only if, in return, I get dispensation from having to finish it.

Seriously though, I found the book exhausting and gave up after 250 pages. I think that I needed to be reading this under the care of an expert—say, a college course—or, at least, in a heavily annotated version. I was half-overwhelmed by symbology, usually only dimly perceived, thinking I was being taken on a journey through Christian faith toward atheistic rationalism but never quite being able to appreciate fully the scenery along the way. I did enjoy the humor when I encountered it, but did not enjoy the slog through wordiness in between. And...I certainly reached my limit on whaling-ology, a subject I find myself less interested in now than previously.

To date, my Melville comprised only Billy Budd, which I did not enjoy. I felt the need to attempt his classic but can now say with reasonable certainty that I am not a Melville fan.
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LibraryThing member jeff.maynes
Moby Dick is mesmerizing, evocative and haunting. Though I knew the ending long before reading it, the final scenes have lingered in my mind since finishing it. The driving narrative of the last set of chapters is compelling, and Ahab's final lines, are among the finest in literature:

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

The tale is well known and needs little summary here. Moby Dick is the story of a whaling expedition lead by the "monomaniacal" Captain Ahab (this appropriate term is used to describe him in the text on numerous occasions, Melville seems to want us to associate it with the character) to find and kill Moby Dick, the great white whale which took his leg. It's also famous for its richness, and there is no shortage of interpretations of what Moby Dick symbolizes, or the deep philosophical themes raised by the book. There is much that could be said about the struggle between Ahab and Moby Dick, and in particular, what it tells us about the relationship between man and the divine. I'm in waters a bit too deep here myself, as I have not read any of the accompanying scholarship. I'm struck however, by a comment by the narrator:

"For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth requires full as much bolstering as error. So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory."

This is not evidence that Moby Dick is not also a symbol. Ishmael here is warning us against assuming that Moby Dick is simply a fiction designed to impart a lesson, rather than something real and terrible. That does not imply that, for us, Moby Dick cannot be an allegory. Yet, it dovetails nicely with one of the noteworthy features of the novel, and that is the frequent chapters which step out of the adventure narrative and discuss whaling. These chapters are interesting in their own right, particularly as they represent an interesting combination of systematic, scientific thinking and folk wisdom and anecdote. More to the point, however, these chapters naturalize Moby Dick. He is placed within a natural order, and this natural order is used to explain religious and historical discussions of whales and dragons. Melville goes to lengths to draw us into the reality of the situation, rather than simply asking us to adopt some obvious metaphor about revenge or the divine. This, I suspect, is what gives the work its interpretive richness. Ishmael does not want us to interpret it as an allegory, and so the novel does not wear its meaning openly on its sleeve. In a brief review such as this, I can only say that the novel rewards reflective and engaged reading. The scholarship may be extensive, but any reader will be rewarded for a thoughtful reading which considers the deep currents beneath the surface of the plot.

Allow me to give at least one brief example to illustrate this. Ahab's focus on the whale captures the hearts and minds of the crew. They are swept along by the force of his will (indeed, Ahab sees himself as being swept along by divine will or fate). The only one who offers even a semblance of defiance is his first mate Starbuck, who is a devoted Quaker. That might indicate a rather simple interpretation, in which Ahab's pursuit of the terrors of the natural world blinds him to the truth revealed by Starbuck's religion. Yet, matters are more complex. Ahab is the one who moves with religious fervor, and whales are frequently understood in terms of biblical allusions (particularly to the Leviathan). The story of Jonah, swallowed by a whale, features prominently in the novel. Is it instead that Ahab's pursuit of a divine will he cannot comprehend (a theme which reappears at the end of the novel) that destroys him? Is his affinity with Pip, whose experience of the vastness of the divine while adrift, because they are the two characters who understand the immensity of it? That the divine destroys men? Is it instead that Moby Dick is the divine, and that Starbuck's impotence in the end is the failure of conventional religion to comprehend his sort of religious experience? I've been wrestling with such questions throughout the novel, and for anyone looking to think deeply about what they are reading, Moby Dick is a book that one simply ought to read.

I'll close with at least a few words about Ahab and the brilliant style of the novel. Ahab is a riveting and incredible character. Yet, throughout much of the middle of the novel, he is curiously absent. His presence is felt, and he has control over the plot, but he pops in and out of the narrative. This effective device keeps the character's mystery from being lost, and his imperative from becoming overwrought. Yet, his appearances serve to drive us along with the Pequod. Early it feels we still might turn around, that while Moby Dick is the aim, he is a long way off. It is only when Ahab takes complete control of the novel, in the final chapters, that it is obvious how inevitable the conclusion really is. We the readers, just as much as the Pequod's crew, are swept away by Ahab's mesmerizing will, towards their destruction.

These appearances by Ahab also show how seamlessly Melville moves between styles. The descriptions of whaling are brutal and moving, moving between the common prose of brutality to the language of salons and philosophers. Ishmael draws an analogy between the severed whale heads hanging from either sides of the ship to the philosophical tensions between Locke and Kant. We also see the academic prose of the chapters on whales and whaling coupled with the Shakespearean speeches of Ahab, who dominates every scene in which he speaks. Consider the following passage, from Chapter 70, as Ahab looks over one of those decapitated whale heads:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head ... which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was they most familiar home."

Moby Dick is an unforgettable reading experience. The prose is powerful and moving, the adventure is exciting and compelling, and the narrative is thoughtful and thought-provoking.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Moby Dick is a deeply weird book, not what I expected from a 19th Century classic, and my rating expresses my mixture of admiration, boredom and outright irritation at Melville's wretched self-indulgence and excesses. I know that's nigh to sacrilegious. Introductions to this book call it "the greatest American novel ever written" and the "greatest sea book ever written." I certainly recommend trying it on the grounds of cultural literacy and if you have any interest in modern literature or the art of writing.

But as presumptuous as it might be to say so, I could wish Melville had a much more ruthless editor. He fronts the book with an extensive etymology and 78 "extracts" (ie quotations) on the whale from Genesis to Darwin where a selection of a few would more than do. Of the 135 chapters, over two dozen are essays on different aspects of whales and whaling that have nothing to do with the story of the White Whale Moby Dick, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod or its obsessed Captain Ahab or the purported narrator Ismael. One in five chapters are completely taken up with describing the different species of whales, historical encounters, whaling equipment and methods, whaling products, every anatomical part you could imagine (every part, one chapter is devoted to describing the whale's penis alone), myth, maritime law--and three whole chapters devoted to whales in art. Mine eyes they glazeth over. Melville, instead of studding the book with bits on the theme, or letting it speak for itself, spends an entire chapter on "The Whiteness of the Whale." All to my mind absolutely skipable, skimable and yawn-inducing except to academics and literary critics.

That's not all. This purports to be a first person narrative by Ismael. The novel famously starts, "Call me Ismael" as if the novel is spoken by Ismael into the reader's ear. Yet about a third way through Ismael disappears as a character--no matter how many "I" statements may still be embedded throughout--and becomes in effect the omniscient narrator, telling us of thoughts, acts and speeches of others he had no way of knowing. A character is named early on, Bulkington, in a way that should signal his importance to the story, then dropped without explanation. Much of Moby Dick reads like a sloppy first draft.

Then there's the just plain trippy. As mentioned above, loads of chapters that are essays. Others that are prose poems or what seem to be displaced random snatches of Huh??? (see, Chapter 122) and more than one chapter in the midst of the novel that are in stage play format (See,, in particular, "Midnight, Forecastle.") Characters--especially Captain Ahab--speak not like 19th Century Americans, but Elizabethians spouting blank verse complete with "Hark!" and "Methinks." One of the introductions I read called Moby Dick "proto-post-modern," and it does at times read more like something James Joyce or Faulkner or their many followers like DeLillo might have written (not a compliment coming from me) than Hawthorne or Dickens.

So why don't I give this a half-star and be done with it? Well, some of Ahab's Shakespearean language is striking and resonant. Hey, it's where Star Trek's Khan cribbed his best lines! ("I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the horn, and round the norway maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up." "He tasks me." "To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell's heart, I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.") There are gorgeous descriptions of the sea--of sunlight against the horizon like a finger, of the wake churning the sea like butter and so much prose with music in it. There's biting social commentary, irreverent observations about religion, irony, glints of humor (especially regarding the Polynesian Harpooner Queequeg, the co-owners of the ship, and Second Mate Stubb.) A lot of the characters are memorable, beyond just Ahab. Pip, the Carpenter and the Blacksmith, the three officers, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask. Cut away all the digressions, there's a epic mythic story at the core--if you can keep yourself awake.
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LibraryThing member AriadneAranea
Dull, dull, dull. 536 pages of dull.

Nominally it is about a chap (“Call me Ishmael”) who goes on a whaling voyage with his pal Queequeg, a tattoed-cannibal-savage type about whom we hear very little given that he is supposed to be bosom buddy to the author. Perhaps this is because poor stupid savage Queequeg can’t actually speak without saying “lookee, him biggum dam Whalo” or something equally ridiculous. The voyage on which they set out is aboard the Pequod which, as we discover, is captained by one Ahab who lost his leg to the Great White Whale, Moby Dick and is now monomaniacally (oh, how often we see that word) obsessed with his pursuit of and revenge upon said terrible beast.

However, you spend far less time reading any actual story than you do hearing the author’s great and interminable mumblings about whales. You get pretty much the sum of mid-nineteenth century whale lore, complete with conjectures that appear to be entirely the author’s own. It’s a hoot. No, really.

There’s also a lot about how noble it is to be a man. Yawn.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Thus begins Moby-Dick, a heavy novel both literally and figuratively, considered one of America's finest tales and written by a master of the English language. It took me nearly three weeks to read this gargantuan book, which I suppose is appropriate.

It is a fascinating novel. On the surface, Moby-Dick appears to be a simple adventure tale about the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod, a vessel commanded by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, who lusts for vengeance against the infamous albino whale that cost him his leg in a previous encounter. It examines the whaling industry in every stark, grisly detail, sparing no account of the dismemberment of the whales or the horrors of the voyage, and while this life may seem romanticised and exotic now, at the time it was a profession regarded on the same level as meatpacking or carpentry. It should not be a masterpiece - and yet it is.

Almost the entire story takes place aboard the Pequod, and there are less than ten major characters. Despite these constraints - or perhaps because of them - Moby-Dick is an epic, sprawling novel, touching upon hugely complex themes. The characters speak in grand Biblical and Shakespearean fashion, soliliquising about life, death and the universe, speaking to the reader in frequent asides, contemplating the meaning of their voyage, of their desires, of their true nature. Whalers spent a lot of time at sea, sometimes going years without sighting land. With nothing to look at but the depths of the ocean and the depths of the stars, it's not surprising that their minds turned to thinking about some heavy shit.

Ishmael, though he is the narrator, is no major character - this is Captain Ahab's story, the story of a tragic hero in the Greek fashion, his fatal flaw being a completely illogical thirst for vengeance. Ahab is not a bad man, nor a bad captain. He is simply mad, yet not so mad that he does not realise it, and not so mad that he does not take pains to hide it from his crew. The second most important character is Starbuck, the first mate, and the only member of the Pequod's crew who does not get swept up by Ahab's grand, hypnotic speeches and declare to follow the captain into the jaws of hell. Starbuck voices his doubts regularly, frequently clashes with Ahab, and towards the end of the voyage contemplates murdering the man before he gets them all killed. As the book and the voyage draws to a conclusion, and both Starbuck and Ahab grow more tortured and melancholy, this becomes a truly sad story.

Melville displays a much greater command of the English language then he did in Typee; almost every page contains references to great stories that came before him, to old English literature, to the Bible, to the Greek and Roman canon. Likewise, his own skill with words creates powerful imagery:

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the carcass; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.

...Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.


Any masterpiece has its flaws, of course - Moby-Dick's is the enormous pile of tedious chapters in which Melville, via Ishmael, feels obliged to dump all the knowledge of the whale he has accumulated over his career onto the reader. He discusses the head, the spine, the tail, the skeleton, the whale's distribution, whale psychology, whale herding behaviour, laws pertaining to whaling and so forth. He gushes on and on about the whale's sublime form, its majesty, its titanic beauty, that I eventually felt like shouting "JUST HAVE SEX WITH ONE ALREADY." Moby-Dick has been successfully adapted to the stage for three reasons: the small cast of characters, the single setting, and the fact that at least half the book consists of completely superfluous chapters that can easily be cut. I understand why they're there, but there was no need whatsoever to have quite that amount of them, or even to award them separate chapters rather than weaving them into the main narrative.

In spite of its flaws, I was impressed by this book. It did grow tedious towards the end, and I do have trouble reading stories more than a hundred years old (let alone those that employ lofty Shakespearean dialogue). I wouldn't exactly say that I enjoyed it. But I was intrigued by it, and swept up in it, and as the tragic overtones become more explicit towards the conclusion, I was moved by it. I am glad that I read it, and glad that it exists. Moby-Dick is truly an amazing piece of writing, and has rightfully earned its place in the firmament of literary history.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Call me impressed. The blurb on the jacket of this audio book calls it a “breathtaking masterwork,” but actually, it’s better than that! It is a epic and staggering tale every bit as big as its subject matter--the largest of all living creatures and the edacious, relentless men who hunt and kill them.

Melville’s language is grandiloquent and a bit archaic, almost like the King James Bible. Although some might find that pretentious, I think it works in its context. My experience of the book may even have been enhanced by listening to it rather than reading it: the language is so elevated that, like a Shakespearian play, it is more moving when heard than when read. Melville says somewhere near the end of the book that one should write big stories about big subject matters, not about small things. And indeed, this book is not about mice or fleas; it is about whales and whaling.

Moby Dick was first published in 1851. The plot is of course familiar to most; beginning with the first sentence “Call me Ishmael” to the obsessed quest by Captain Ahab on the whaleship Pequod to catch and kill the whale that severed his leg, this story has been swimming through the culture in every medium from music to movies (including adaptations like “Jaws) and television.

Melville can be forgiven for utilizing a sprinkling of omens and preternaturally prescient shamans, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s witches, to create a foreboding atmosphere. His characters were superstitious and would have attributed such portentousness to ordinary coincidences. And what wonderful characters they are! Dickens himself would have been proud to have limned them, especially the “pagan savages,” the harpooners named Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Fedallah.

This is not just a novel. It is also an encyclopedic treatise on the subject of whales and whaling, relating not only what scientists of the time knew, but also much of the lore (obviously exaggerated, but in many ways more interesting than the truth) prevalent in the fishery.

In the performance to which I listened (“Unabridged Classics” on 18 CDs), Frank Muller did a superb job of mastering accents and employing different voices for different characters. This book sets a very high standard for other fiction. It deserves its rating as one of the greatest novels in the English language.

(JAB)
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LibraryThing member fredvandoren
Moby Dick

Read it, but not in high school!

I put off reading this book for years, believing that it was long and deadly, full of dry facts about cetology, and a sure waste of time. What a mistake! This is a rich, powerful book, drunk on language and replete with fascinating portraits of cannibals, sailors and more whales than you can harpoon in a year.

The opening hundred pages or so set the stage for the appearance of Ahab, the mad, legless captain. Ishmael, the young sailor with no experience in whaling, hears rumors, wild prophecies, personal impressions of colleagues, but never sees the old man himself until days after the Pequod has set sail. The increasing suspense is masterfully crafted.

Unusual in a fishing story are the many, many digressions into American whaling traditions, life in the South Sea islands, thoughts on world religions, and lots about whales, from Biblical quotations to the latest science of the day (1851). One amazing fact is that no one at that time had been able to observe the whole body of a live whale; it was always partially submerged. There was no sonar, no underwater cameras. So I wondered how much of the whale lore still holds true.

The language of this book is wonderfully rich, evocative and varied, and while Ahab is clearly mad, it his speech that raises this fishing trip into an epic battle.

This is the first book I have read on an Iphone, using the Kindle program. I wasn’t sure it was possible, but I was very glad for the dictionary feature.
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
I read once that Moby Dick is supposed to be 'The Great American Novel' (whatever that is). Surely not!! American it may be, but great - definitely not, unless the word 'great' is immediately followed by the words 'big' and 'bore'. And as for novel - absolutely not, it's a textbook. Everything you ever wanted to know about whaling and then some… (more)
LibraryThing member deadmanjones
A promising beginning on land as the narrator unveils his character with a good degree of humour, sinks without trace as soon as the Pequod puts to the ocean. The narrator is forgotten (a risible postscript doesn't help), as is the story, as the novel transforms itself into a lengthy discourse on whaling, whales, the colour white, and any passing fancy that slipped into Melville's mind. Its form is random, its narrative is inconsistent and its symbolism is ham fisted (and more oft that not actually announced as symbolism). When the chase finally erupts it is an exciting and emotional ride, but little could overcome any reader's feeling of exhaustion by this point. I deserve a medal for reading every page of the unabridged version, since less than 1/5 of its volume is taken up with any semblance of story.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
It has been said, and must be said again, that Moby-Dick is for the large part tedious to read, and only a very small portion of the book, notable the last three chapters are full of fury, and heart-throbbing excitement.

The endless succession of page-upon-page of knowledge about whaling, are like the vastness of the oceans, and the huge lapses of time that the voyage of the Pequod takes. The sparse encounters with other ships, emphasize the loneliness at sea, especially the isolation of Ahab. (It is a bit odd they never enter a port.)

Early in the novel, we are told that few people understand or appreciate the whaling business, and this oversight is clearly and effectively remedied by including so much knowledge about whaling. Some of this knowledge is clearly needed to read the later chapters in the novel. This part of Melville's novel does what Hemingway's Death in the afternoon does for bull fighting.

To understand why bull fighting is heroic, and what is the aesthetic value of it, you need a fair amount of knowledge and an open mind. The sincere, and easy-going friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg, which was probably odd in Melville's day, and might even be unusual in ours, shows what it means to be truly open-minded.

There are several moments, when the prose takes the shape of "merry comedy", which breaks the dour seriousness of the novel. The second half of the book seems to allow for more humour, as in:

The milk is very sweet and rich; it has been tasted by man; it might do well with strawberries. p.424

"What's the matter with your nose, there?" said Stubb. "Broke it?"
"I wish it was broken, or that I didn't have any nose at all!" (...)
"But what are you holding yours for?"
"Oh, nothing! It's a wax nose; I have to hold it on. Fine day, aint it?" p.442-3

With chapter 132 entitled "The symphony", the next three chapters are like movements of a symphony, or acts in a ballet. The dance of the whale is splendid and graceful.

The best thing about reading Moby-Dick was to get to the story first-hand, and peel or scratch away all the layers of comment and interpretation of others, that had encrusted the this story from my earliest memories. Finishing this book required some perseverance at times, but was ultimately very rewarding.
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LibraryThing member tikitu-reviews
Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow.

This was, at the same time, everything I expected and nothing like what I expected.

It's enormous: check. It's full of obsessive detail about sailing and whaling technology and techniques: check. You know the ending: check. It starts with "Call me Ishmael"… well, not quite.

The biggest surprise about Moby-Dick is how funny it is. The book in fact opens with two sections giving some warning: an ‘Etymology (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School.)’ and a selection of ‘Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian.)’ These last are introduced with the note, “It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane,” and then continues for twelve pages that fulfill that promise entirely.

The humour of the narrator is to show up again and again throughout the novel, as for example in the chapter entitled ‘Cetology’, when he classifies the various breeds of whale according to size: Folios (Sperm Whale, Right Whale, Hump-backed Whale, &c), Octavoes (Narwhales, Killer Whales &c) and Duodecimoes (various Porpoises). The chapter ends with a passage that is most certainly going to become an epigraph somewhere in my PhD thesis:

It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upong the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from even completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

Beyond the humour, though, there's a different kind of playfulness at work which also surprised me. It's hinted at, again, by the Etymology and Extracts, but it's still a surprise to see chapters 37 to 40 given in the form of a fragment of playscript, complete with stage directions and the occasional song-and-dance number! There's a more subtle form of stylistic schizophrenia at work as well, that I'm not sure I would have noticed if it wasn't mentioned in the introduction, but that sticks out like a sore thumb once you're alert to it: the narrator moves back and forth between being a real character taking part, and an all-seeing impersonal observer, depending on the varying needs of the author. The character is certainly present, indeed he's the only member of the crew who escapes the sinking of the Pequod, but he comments (in his own unique voice) on events which he cannot have witnessed and on the innermost thoughts of other characters, whenever Melville feels this might be helpful.

I'm still surprised that I enjoyed so much a novel that, stylistically speaking, is a poorly edited hodgepodge (it's not only style that wanders about; there are various continuity errors, characters that disappear without explanation or are cavalierly and unexpectedly dismissed, and so on). What carries it is the voice of the narrator, blending the comic and the horrific and the heroic aspects of his situation to perfection. He kept me fascinated by the details of 19th century whaling, which takes some doing.

That point deserves some expansion. It's true that a large portion of the novel (perhaps between 20 and 30 percent, from a quick scan of chapter titles) is given over to painstakingly detailed descriptions of whaling procedure, the equipment, the historical appreciation for the craft, and so on and so forth. What this isn't (to my delighted surprise) is dry. It's carried by Melville's enormous enthusiasm for the subject, made visible in the pride and the sense of heroism his narrator gives voice to, as well as by that slightly detached humour that lets him carry out an extended metaphor describing a Sperm Whale's and a Right Whale's heads as representing Stoic and Platonic philosophy, while those same heads are hanging on either side of the Pequod and stinking to high heaven.

A note about the edition, and annotation in general: I read the Penguin Classic edition, which is light on annotations; I quite often missed the notes for an obvious allusion. A comprehensive reading list accompanies the notes. Three chapters (a full three chapters!) of the novel deal with depictions of whales in art (‘Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales’' ‘Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes,’ and two pages entitled ‘Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars’), and the notes refer the reader to Herman Melville's Picture Gallery: Sources and Types of the “Pictorial” Chapters of Moby-Dick; it's on my wishlist.

If you're game for a rather dense 600 pages, Moby-Dick will repay your dedication. Despite the digressions and despite knowing the ending of it all, it's a compelling story. And because of the digressions, it's astonishingly funny and stylistically … like nothing I've ever read before.
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LibraryThing member bzedan
Long one, from right after I first read it: Um? By the time I got into higher school, I wasn't like, literary (I was obsessed with Dune, and Richard Brautigan, okay?), and in college the extent of how much I cared for non SF canon and sub-canon pretty much began and ended with personal interpretations of Shakespeare and believing that Sonnet 18 was a eulogy. In other words, less than nought. So, other than the basic ideas needed to remain culturally literate and a fondness for the name "Ishmael", Moby Dick passed me by. It's a long book, and I'm not like, an analyser, so this'll be quick. Basically, I guess it's supposed to be a descent into madness/inescapable obsession? But for me, the whole feeling of this book was endearing whimsy and fey humour (with a morbid sense of life, but that's what makes it great). It's like listening to some old guy recount something that is really important to him, but he knows that serious things are most safely treated with soft mockery. Anyway, the sneaking increase of Shakespearean language styling is nice as a clear clue to the crazy, as is (my) eventual realisation that the excessive text-bookery of whale and whaling education chapters is the thumbprint of Ishmael's madness. It's why the book is so damn long and descriptive. He is attempting to catalogue all the impressions of the events of the Pequod in his mind. Like, have you ever sat down to write something, beginning with a short description of the set and staging and realised pages later that you are still singing the praises of the wallpaper and softly lit curtains and shit? Anyway, that's how I picture it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Helena81
Where to start? I found this book extremely tedious and hard to get through. I had meant to read the book for a long time--hey, it's a classic--and finally got around to it this month. What a huge disappointment.

OK, I get it. I know that this book has some beautiful prose and novel literary devices (stage directions, soliloquies, etc.). I also found the narrative itself relatively interesting (although it didn't blow me away--whale pun intended). The relations between Ahab, the mates, and the harpooners are complex and layered, and were the only real thing sustaining my interest. However, even this could have been better developed--the book begins by piqueing our interest in harpooner Queequeg, but he then fades from sight for most of the novel. The last 10% or so was well-developed, well-written, and surprising. It would have been really enjoyable, but by that point, I simply didn't care about Ahab, Moby Dick, or even Ishmael himself.

Here's why. At least 1/2 of this book is only tangentially related to the narrative. And it's dull. Oh boy, is it dull. Every conceivable aspect of whales is hammered to death ad nauseum. Here's a partial list of some of the topics you'll learn about, in excruciating detail, if you read Moby Dick: an extended taxonomy of all whales, the physiology of whales, deficiencies in illustrators' depictions of whales, the types of ropes used to haul in whales, the measurements of sperm whales, fossilized prehistoric whales... Asleep yet? I almost was.

I gave the book 2 stars because the narrative itself was sometimes engrossing, and I did at least manage to finish the book (unlike Tristram Shandy that I *really* hated, but that's another story).
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