“Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”
Each time I’ve completed my 50 book goal I try to include a book that is a challenge for me in some way. Usually it’s a longer, more difficult “classic” than I’m used to. For several years, Moby Dick has been the book I just couldn’t finish; Anna Karenina and Ivanhoe are two others. At the beginning of every summer vacation I always decide I will finish one of these books. Usually those declarations are met with little success, but this year, guys, I finally finished Moby Dick in all of it’s whale-y, revenge-y glory. And while I wasn’t quite to the point of sleeping with clenched hands, I definitely was determined to finish the book.
That being said, I’m finding my thoughts about this novel too scattered to organize into any coherent review. It’s almost like the book is too vast and overwhelming to fit into any review. I’m not going to even try to talk about symbolism or allegory or deeper meanings, because there are literally 99,900 results on Google if you’re interested in all of that. I want to talk instead about the surprisingly visceral reaction I had to parts of the novel.
Much of this book is about whales and whaling. In fact, “much” doesn’t quite do it justice. Moby Dick is entirely about whales and whaling. What’s amazing is that Melville can take that subject and turn it into an epic quest full of characters who are representative of so many larger things. There are chapters that are incredibly slow. It seems like for every one chapter of plot there are five describing various aspects of the whale. I did not enjoy those descriptive chapters–with the exception of the chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” That one was really interesting.
I did enjoy the characters–Ahab especially. I’m not altogether sure what I think of him, but Melville describes Ahab’s monomania in really, really creepy ways. There is a lot of religious symbolism and allusions to other works, but mainly there’s a scene where he baptizes his harpoon in the blood of his crew members. That kind of stuff is not what you expect from a long novel in the Romantic tradition. The chapters about whales were slow; the chapters about Ahab made me shudder. It was worth wading through the cetology to get to the parts about Ahab’s obsession and relentless search for the whale.
Would I recommend this book? Definitely, if you’re up to the task of reading it. It will take you a long time. It has 135 chapters, after all.
If you want to read about whaling and get that shuddery-creepy feeling without the 135 chapters, read In the Heart of the Sea. It’s got all of the interesting history with less of the long, convoluted prose (plus, it has cannibalism).
As with most difficult books, I’m so glad I made it all the way through. There’s something about struggling with a text that makes you appreciate it more. The best comparison I can make is with Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s tough to read and frustrating at times, but it leaves you with food for thought for a long time.