It is one of the most famous opening lines in western literature, and one that immediately introduces the reader to the musical rhythm inherent in much of Melville’s acclaimed Moby-Dick, the story of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod as they circumnavigate the globe in search of whales – and one whale in particular, the white whale, Moby Dick, who Ahab has lost his leg to and now seeks revenge upon. And yet, for much of the book, Ahab is either below decks, unseen and unmet until well after the Pequod has left Nantucket one cold Christmas Day. Contrast this to the last pages when Ahab stands on deck, feverish in his searching, smelling the white whale’s presence, never once leaving to go down below, never once quitting the trail, even when every conceivable ill-omen befalls the ship and its crew. It is a great allegorical tale of a man driven to something at the expense of all else, and made me think of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood, a similar tale of a man driven to extremes and damn the consequences!
We meet Ishmael, previously a merchant mariner, as he seeks a whaleboat to sail on. Looking for a bed for the night, he comes across ‘The Spouter Inn: Peter Coffin.’ He thinks it an ill omen, and so do we! There are some other wonderful hints about what is to come too, as the supposedly unlettered Ishmael talks of ‘blubbering’ [p11] as he considers the Spouter Inn, and how, when considering a dark painting on its wall, he sees in it something resembling the ‘great leviathan himself’ [p12]. Further to these, Ishmael reads the marble tablets erected in the local church to commemorate those lost at sea. Thinks Ishmael:
Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say – here, here lies me beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes!
Methinks Melville had the dictionary open at the letter ‘b’ whilst writing that sentence! I like alliteration; and there is a lot of it in Moby Dick.
There are no more rooms left and so Ishmael is forced to share a room with Queequeg, “a cannibal with a tomahawk” – and his God-idol, Yojo. At first suspicious of the tattooed islander, the two end up being best of friends and their burgeoning relationship is depicted with real joy, so much so I could not help but sense a homo-erotic angle, not just in their sleeping together, but in Ishmael’s later bathing in a tub of sperm where his task is to squeeze out the lumps with some of his fellow crew but he seems happier playing with their lumps rather than the solidifying sperm(!) (Or I am reading a little too much into things here?)
It is also in these early pages that we see Ishmael question faith and religion, seeing as there is so much death in the whaling business. Speaking of the tablets, he thinks [p40], “… Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” He then goes on:
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water is the thinnest of air.
What a beautiful last sentence.
The story of Jonah is referred to several times, as are countless other biblical and classical stories. Ishmael places Jonah before us, “not … to be copied for his but … as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed and repent of it like Jonah.”
Long before we get on the ship, and even longer before we get to meet the darkness within Ahab, Ishmael, snug in his bed with Queequeg, muses [p59], “… no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part.” Whilst out bodies enjoy and need the sun, perhaps our minds are better considered through darkness.
It is only on page 74 that Ishmael boards the Pequod to interview, not with Ahab, but with Captain Peleg, the owner of the Pequod. Ishmael is put on the list, but wants to (rightly) lay eyes on Captain Ahab before he sails. Peleg describes Ahab, and this is our first introduction to him, “I don’t think thou wilt be able to [see him] at present. I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; … a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. … He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man…”
Ahab is busy brooding over his lost leg and the whale who stole it.
Yet for all the wonderful musicality and alliteration in the writing, there are swathes of the novel that seem pointless, as if the real monomaniacal man in this story is perhaps poor Ishmael who, after surviving the voyage, has had some of the old Ahab’s single-mindedness rub off on him as he recounts his tale. The story’s themes are myriad, dealing with: religion, politics, slavery, capitalism, good vs evil, class, and so on. Education too, for Ishmael tells us , “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” This is a wonderful line and often quoted, (though one wonders how it is that unlettered Ishmael learnt his classics on a whale-ship!) As a measure of how the book holds within it themes which speak of America, Ahab sees the Pequod and says [p631], “The ship! … its wood could only be American.”
A number of narrative forms are employed, though why is beyond me; most of the novel is in prose, interspersed with sections like plays with stage directions, dramatic soliloquies, and asides to the audience. This seems to be Melville experimenting with format, with what the novel can be, well ahead of modernism.
When we finally meet Ahab, 134 pages in, he is described as follows:
His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.
Note how the mark, whose origin is unknown, links with the whiteness of the whale he seeks, as if it is part of him, and he part of it. Note also, Ahab’s ‘unalterable’ self: nothing will deter him from his aim.
Ahab stands erect, with an “infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of [his gaze].” Melville was keen on ‘f’s that day!
After all this lead-in, this build-up of ill omen and danger, of Ahab’s brooding sickness, we are left in no doubt of Ahab’s trajectory when we hear his first words [p137]: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb … for an old Captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my grave-dug berth.”
Just as things are getting interesting, Melville diverts us off into the musings on different whales, before he thankfully brings us back to find Ahab co-opting the crew into the search for Moby-Dick. Only poor Starbuck, the brave first mate, is against the hunt, saying [p180], ‘I came to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.’ But even Starbuck acquiesces. The die is cast, the ship and crew committed. Says Ahab afterward [p185], “’Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. … They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!”
There are many fine passages, including the hunts, as well as delightfully depicted moments like the whale blubber being unfurled off a dead leviathan like an orange peel. But there are long passages which, had they been left out, I doubt would have been missed, such as an examination of whale references in other books, though there is a great observation when discussing canallers [p280], in that, “… scarce any race of mankind, except Sydney men, are so much distrusted by our whaling captains.” (I am presuming he means Sydney, Australia with all its convicts!, though am conscious he might be referring to Sydney Nova Scotia, Canada, also on the eastern seaboard of North America like Nantucket, Mass. I wonder which it is?)
In any event, we learn everything there is to know about whales and whale history, how they are caught and cut, how they are stored and burned. To my mind, the last 130-pages or so bring the story back to life, with little fat, though Melville’s sudden preoccupation with adverbs drove me a little to distraction. (Placed end-to-end, one could walk clean across the Pacific Ocean on all the adverbs. Some are truly(!) ponderous. Take, for example, [p 626]: “… Moby Dick seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven.” Combinedly?! Wouldn’t the sentence work better without that bizarre concoction?)
If there were ill omens at the start, then they positively pile up in these final 100 pages, as does Ahab’s madness. He stays on deck, and every ship they meet the very first thing he asks their captains is ‘Have ye seen the white whale?’ Then, at last!, we come to the memorable meeting with the mighty Moby Dick, coming in the last 34 pages of 634 – and a wonderful ending it is too.
I shall quickly forget all the adverbs and think instead of the rhythm in the writing, the musicality of it, and the masterful way in which Melville builds Ahab as the paragon of monomaniacal man, a mysterious, ungodly god that will live long in the memory.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library)