Moby Dick by Melville

This is a book about hunting a big fish – The End .


The book opens up with what is probably the most famous beginning of a book “Call me Ishmael” . The book starts off in first person . He opens up talking about how when he feels morose , he elects to go sailing . There is a philosophical case that he makes for water bodies . I feel as though it was a kindred soul calling out to me and I am thinking of bidding farewell to land and computers and WordPress  ,I bid adieu to all you land lubbers for the sea is my calling . Fortunately better sense prevailed in the form of my cats sinking their claws in the tender parts of my leg and a chagrined memory that I had gotten sea sick on a mere two hour cruise in the tranquil waters of Singapore . But the call of the unknown and the majestic is a powerful one and Melville waxes lyrically .

More study of human psychology is to come in the form of the savage harpooner , Queequeg whom Ishmael is leery of due to his strange looks but becomes bosom buddies as they communicate and learn to live together in close quarters. Some say familiarity breeds contempt but it is also true that the unknown is feared more often.

Melville transports us to  Nantucket and New Bedford around the middle of the 19th century so much so that one can expect to touch the strange fellows who walk around there without raising an eyebrow . There is also graphic descriptions of the dissections of the whale , extensive discussions of the entire taxonomy of the whale family so much so that I feel certified to call myself a whale physician . Well I cannot cure all whale ailments but Melville does inform us how to remove Ambergris from a whale , too much of the stuff probably makes a whale sick and removing the fragrant Ambergris is beneficial for both humans and whales . There does seem to be a tiny problem with having the cut open the sperm whale but I imagine that in this day and age , we could build an operating theater big enough with an anesthetic mask that would cover the enormous 8 feet head and a artificial lung that can oxygenate a 60 feet body weighing 40 tons, with an enormous pump.  The logistics ……we better go back to the discussion at hand.

Moby Dick is a white whale which has snacked on Captain Ahab’s leg while he was trying to get some spermaceti out of its head . Apparently in those days , the only light after dark was from lamps that were burnt using whale oil which is derived from Spermaceti . Sperm whales around  the world owe a big vote of thanks to Thomas Edison. Captain Ahab goes batshit and decides that Moby Dick deserves to die(which is what he was going to do anyway but now he is angry and vengeful) . The psychology of an individual who seeks vengeance on an animal is something that one has to wonder about .

There are more interesting tidbits of psychology where he shows us the contrast between the crazed emotional Ahab and his level headed logical first mate, Starbuck . In every contest between emotion and logic , emotion wins including near the end where Starbuck is given an opportunity to kill Ahab, an opportunity that will avail him to see his young wife and child once again , he is acutely aware that if Ahab lives , the Pequod will be lead to its watery grave but his level headed goodness prevents him from carrying out the deed.

There is an interesting anecdote that Melville humors us with regarding the law of possession where he talks about the principle of fast fish and loose fish . The adjective ‘fast’ refers to the concept of being fastened and the adjective loose refers to the non owned status of the noun in question. A whaling ship harpoons a whale and the enraged whale turns upon them which leads to them abandoning harpoons and said ship . Subsequently the whale is captured and killed and the ship takes over everything that is attached to the whale including the previous ship. In court , the defendants lawyer wins the case by citing a case where a woman is abandoned by her husband who is subsequently wedded to another man . The first husband regretting his mistake desires to get his wife back but the court decrees that she is ‘fast’ened to her current husband . When he had abandoned her , she was a loose fish and therefore could be acquired by anybody.

There is also some interesting facts about the distribution of the whale parts , the head is decreed to go to the King and the tail to the Queen for what he calls obvious reasons but which I cannot surmise . He points out the utilitarian reasons that the tail bone was used for the bodices of the dresses worn by the queen .

The descriptions of the whale slaughter is graphic and brutal and turns even the strongest of stomachs and there were times that I went queasy but I could not stop myself from continuing , perhaps that is the mesmerizing effect of horror .The senselessness of the slaughter is gut wrenching at times.   One wonders how is it that the whale population is not already extinct but Melville does offer an logical explanation as to why seafarers cannot kill as many animals out in the ocean as people on land do . It is based on the convenience of killing animals on land and he compares the disappearing bison herds of the Prairies with the great whales .

I had read Moby Dick as a picture book when I was barely 6 or 7 along with my mother who explained some of the more complicated terms to me . I revisited it several years ago in audio book form and loved it , this time I finally took the plunge and read it . It is a mesmerizing novel that invoked every possible emotion in me while I read it. The novel ends with the capsizing of the Pequod and a tragic end of Moby Dick along with Ahab and his crew. The sole survivor is Ishmael who survives by floating on his friend  Queequeg’s coffin.

The novel is not about Moby Dick the whale but it is a story of the maniacal obsession of one man and his willingness not only to pay the ultimate price for himself but mandate that his crew do the same for him . As I finished the book , I had to ask myself , we as a species admire endurance and determination so what is that fine line where admired determination becomes despised obsession  . Ahab displays the same grit and determination that we see in the charge of the British against the Russians and was immortalized in “Charge of the Light Brigade“, the same valor that was shown by Leonides and his 300 Spartans and 1000 allies at the battle of Thermopylae against the Persians , the same sentiment that Churchill would have invoked in his famous “fight them on the beaches” speech .In my case , I perceived myself a go-getter and doing everything possible to win her but she saw me as a stalker!!!!

Nobody would dispute that what Ahab did was madness but where that magical line exists , is a mystery and probably a worthwhile challenge for all of us .

Some might say that hallmark of a great book is not to provide answers but to provoke questions and Moby Dick does that . It is certainly a whale of a question !!!

Update – 9-25-2016 – Watched a movie called in the heart of the Sea which supposedly is in the inspiration for Moby Dick . While it provides the idea for the alabaster white whale which is remarkably intelligent and vengeful, the central theme of the book still seems to be obsession . In the movie , the first mate actually stops himself from throwing his harpoon at the whale thereby signalling a sort of peace , something that would be unthinkable for Ahab

15 thoughts on “Moby Dick by Melville

  1. That’s an oceanic and a whale of a review (ha ha). I liked everything about it, the depth of knowledge and the many layers; beautifully written with a meta fictional quality – describing that, which it is doing – felt compelled to continue reading.

    The spirit and tenacity of the Light Brigade’s (etc..) mighty Charge, illustrating Ahab’s degree of determination and strength of character, also showed the determination of his will to power, in a super charged comparison. I’d imagine that the subterranean and philosophical probings are just as intense.

    Embedded (in the review) was, also the spirit of Lord Jim, Kurtz, the ancient mariner and the yearning for the pursuit of the ever allusive self……(?)

    Ps, I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I want to, and yet to read Lord Jim.

    Love the snippet of humour, in the introduction ::-)), “The End Just Kidding”,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was interesting to hear about the way you revisited the story in different forms as you got older. To be honest, I would probably have never read this book had I not been forced to as part of my education. In the end, though, I was glad I did. It was a truly epic story and I found myself quite swept up in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree totally , it is not enticing to start reading the story of a whale hunt but I am glad that I read it and imagine that I will probably revisit it again with the same delight as one greets an old friend .

      Liked by 1 person

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