Reading Melville’s MOBY DICK

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one per month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about or from the books. (You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.) During the month of June my reading was Moby Dick.

“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. And thus begins what is held by many to be “the great American novel”: Moby Dick.

You begin to suspect that you’ve entered a feast of language when the very first paragraph offers up: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

And, indeed, it is a feast. It makes one wonder why the novel was so largely ignored by several generations after its publication. Its author, Herman Melville, had established himself through his first two novels, Typee and Omoo. Moby Dick was his sixth novel. Then his tales of Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno were favorably received. But his second greatest work, his short novel, Billy Budd,  wasn’t published until thirty-three years after his death, 1924, during a resurrection of his reputation.

Perhaps it is too much of a feast for some. The story-line is well-known: narrated by the character Ishmael, it recounts the mad quest by the crazed Captain Ahab to avenge the loss of his leg by the great white whale, Moby Dick. But it requires patience before you get to the main action of the novel. And perhaps, for some, there will be too much information about “Cetology”, the science of whales.

But I maintain that the novel is well worth the time it takes to absorb the richness of the language as well as, perhaps, exploring the various themes that are offered up.

Bainard Cowen, in Invitation to the Classics (edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness) suggests that there are at least the following:

  • The perilous destiny of America in the world
  • Western civilization at a turning point in history
  • The mind encountering nature and alien peoples
  • The soul’s quest for redemption while caught in the downward pull of the world
  • The enmity between human will and the natural order – and the torrent of destruction this brings

Interestingly, according to Cowan, many existentialists have seen Captain Ahab as the hero of the novel, and “hail him for noble rebellion.”

“Melville’s letters, however, give us the key to the true significance of his work. He refers to the Sermon on the Mount and its unfamiliarity to most Christians. In Ishmael he has created a character who – poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart and meek – mourns and hungers after righteousness. And, at the end, after surviving the whirlpool  created by the sinking ship, it is he who will symbolically inherit the earth.”

During the month of July, I’ll be reading Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Join me, if you’d like.



Filed under Literature

4 responses to “Reading Melville’s MOBY DICK

  1. I read Moby Dick in high school (I guess I am really dating myself!), and although I understand the themes you mention,and we discussed those very themes in class (again dating myself – who discusses religious themes in public school?), I found it very boring. I became impatient with the very words you find enthralling. I had the same issue with Dickens (we read David Copperfield), it was extremely wordy, but of course he was paid by the word so that may explain some of it. It’s not to denigrate the character of the works themselves, but I find it easier to read when the wording is concise yet lofty or poetic. I enjoyed Ivanhoe, and Shakespeare, though. Had some struggles with Beowulf and Chaucer.
    Anyway, just my comments. 🙂

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