Moby-Dick: by Herman Melville, A Review


Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, was rated by “The Guardian” as #17 in the top 100 best novels ever written. Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “Why Read Moby-Dick”, claims that he read the book more than a dozen times, adding that he thinks this is the greatest American Novel ever written. It is too bad Melville didn’t get this feedback during his lifetime. Nathaniel Hawthorne and several well-known writers in that day told Melville that they also saw the book as a masterpiece, but even with that it didn’t even outsell Melville’s earlier books. 

The story begins, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-never mind how long precisely-having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particularly to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

Ishmael is the narrator and it is Captain Ahab that enters the Pequod ready to sail. It takes 135 chapters to tell the story of his search to revenge himself on the great white whale that had bitten off his leg. He plots and plans and chases the “hooded phantom” across the oceans and he feels as though he is fighting the God that becomes part of the symbolism of the whale. The story becomes an investigation into the meaning of life. 

As the Pequod and crew chase the great white whale they meet other ships who advise on where the whale was last seen. They do kill and process several whales. Sperm oil is cooled to congeals and then squeezed back into liquid state; blubber is boiled in pots on deck and warm oil is decanted into casks, and then stowed in the ship. Whale meat is eaten, and we learn more than we ever expected about whales and even squid which is a key food for the whales. The book is rich in technical information about whales which in a day when so much of the world needed and depended on whale oil was important.

Much has been written about the philosophy and meaning conveyed by this story. Ahab believes that Moby Dick is evil because he bit his leg off and that he needs to learn why it happened. He assumes he will learn a great truth. This may lend to the idea that symbolically the “whiteness” of the whale meant something, but Melville denied that it did.

The Epilogue offers us a quote from Job 1:14-19, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee…..” Job it seemed had lost everything but on the Pequod who was that last survivor who lost everything?  The Epilogue seems to tell us that it is Ishmael? Whether Ishmael was just an imaginative character or a real one isn't totally clear but he was the narrator of the story. He tells us that "It so chanced....that I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman."

It seems like both Job and Ishmael survived their ordial because, as were told, they escaped so someone would be left to tell us the story.



Quotes from Moby-Dick

“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” 

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”   

“Ignorance is the parent of fear.” 

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.” 

“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men ”