Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ten Things I Liked About Moby Dick

I’m not reviewing Moby Dick on this post.  Now that I have completed it, I have mixed feelings about it.  It’s basically a treatise on whales and the whaling industry from a 19th century perspective stuffed between a slice of comedy (the first 100 pages) and a slice of tragedy (the last 100 pages).  I could never tell whether I was reading through Ishmael’s eyes or through Melville’s.  The author wasn’t kidding when he had Ishmael say, “…a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  Much of Moby Dick read like a dissertation.  That’s all I’m saying from a critical perspective.  Others more qualified than I can pick apart the literary nuances of the novel with greater skill and insight. 

I’d much prefer to list a few kooky things I loved about Moby Dick:

  1. Melville loves the word “phantom”.  He probably used the word every ten pages or so.  I, too, love the word phantom (for obvious reasons).  Melville also liked the words “monomaniac”, “milky way”, and “verdure”.  “Monomaniac” is probably used in every one of the 135 chapters.  Perhaps a thesaurus may have helped Melville.  He could have said “single-minded”, “over-zealous”, or “fanatical”.  Yet, none of these are the mot juste.  Okay, I accept the liberal usage of “monomaniac”.  It is Ahab.
  2. Moby Dick makes me crave chowder.  If it makes you crave chowder, check out my earlier post.  It’s a recipe for Mrs. Hussey’s Try Pots Inn Cod Chowder.  Mmm-mmm, good!
  3. Moby Dick features a cool “bro-mance” between Queequeg and Ishmael.  Melville sometimes comes across as quite modern: he didn’t shy away from male-on-male intimacy, and he showed tolerance of native cultures and pagan beliefs.  Also, Queequeeg is just Bad Ass.  He proves himself to Captain Peleg by harpooning the tiniest drop of tar on the water.  He rescued Tashtego from a sinking whale head like a midwife performing and underwater C-section.  No wonder Ishmael was enamored of him.  Who wouldn’t be?  Bad.  Ass.
  4. The second mate, Stubbs, is a ball-buster.  He provides some much needed comic relief between the dismal Starbuck and the bat-shit crazy Ahab.  When Stubb’s men are rowing the whale boat, he doesn’t encourage them to row harder or faster.  He verbally flogs them:  “Come, why don’t some of ye burst a blood-vessel?...Halloo, here’s grass growing in the boat’s bottom – and by the Lord, the mast there’s budding.  This won’t do, boys…will ye spit fire or not?”  He also talks smack when a competing group of Germans is after the same whale as Stubb.  The Pequod’s boats bump the German boat aside so forcefully that some of the men are spilled into the drink.  Stubb yells back at them: “Don’t be afraid, my butter-boxes; ye’ll be picked up presently – all right – I saw some sharks astern – St. Bernard’s dogs, you know – relieve distressed travelers.”
  5. I now know more than I ever wanted or needed to know about 19th century whaling and cetology.
  6. Although Melville isn’t easy to read, the man could turn a phrase.  He loved alliteration.  It’s everywhere, but my favorite example is: “…leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”  Say it over and over again.  It’s poetry.
  7. Ishmael describes a whale skeleton he once encountered on a tropical island that was covered in vines.  “Life folded Death, Death trellised life; the grim god wived with youthful life, and begat him curly-headed glories.”  Not only are the words beautiful, they exemplify one of the major themes in the book which is the inevitable feedback between life and death and how it’s all wrapped up in one thing.  Ahab himself, with his living leg and his dead bone leg, is another example of life and death dancing around in one being.  “On life and death the man walked.”  Ishmael’s final rescue by way of Queequeg’s coffin-cum-life buoy is another example.  Of all the major themes in Moby Dick, this one resonated most with me.
  8. In Chapter 105, Ishmael philosophizes about the impossibility of extinction of the whale.  This, to me, is an inadvertent cautionary message from Moby Dick.  As modern readers, we can see that Melville got this wrong.  We can see the folly in Ishmael’s inability to believe that so powerful and enduring a species could ever be wiped out.  But we know that whales are endangered, and international policies prohibiting whaling are ignored by some nations like Japan.  This says something to me about man’s inability to fathom environmental tragedies.
  9. Pip reminds me of the fool in King Lear, and Starbuck is a bit of a Hamlet.  I like that Melville brought some Shakespearean elements into his prose and his story.  It’s cool that he experimented with dramatic devices within the novel format, even though it made following point of view a real bitch.
  10. Here’s my kookiest observation about Moby Dick:  I found a connection between Starbuck’s character and coffee!  When the Pequod gams with the ship The Virgin, Stubb says, “…no, no, it’s a coffeepot, Mr. Starbuck; he’s coming off to make us our coffee, is the Yarman; don’t you see that big tin can there alongside if him? – that’s his boiling water.”


  1. I should read this. I should, I should. At some point am going to sit down and force-feed Melville to myself.

  2. Reading MD feels like eating a whale, but a few tasty morsels make it worthwhile.