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The Great Book Adventure: Moby Dick – Part One

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I can still see it sitting there, four shelves up, two in from the door. The cover was apple red and the words were in a slanted script. They were also, appropriately, white. Moby Dick.

I must have been in fourth grade the first time I saw it up there, higher than I could reach, and I remember being shocked. I couldn't get over the fact that it was in an elementary school library. Wasn't that supposed to be a grown up book? What would happen if I asked to check it out? Would the librarian laugh at me? Tell me it was too hard? For two years I tried and failed to find the courage to even pick it from the shelf. I still don't know what it was doing there, whether it was abridged or not (it must have been, right? In an elementary school?). Nevertheless, it says something to me now that even in fourth grade I held Herman Melville's Moby Dick in awe. Now, of course, the question is what will actually reading the book do to that feeling.

There is no doubt that the man is a good storyteller. I mean, is there any better opening line in all of literature? "Call me Ishmael." Um, okay, sure. Whatever you say… Ishmael. Seriously, how else can you respond to a line like that? What's so fantastic about that line, I think, is that it is deceptively concise and devilishly complex. It is a declarative three words, nearly as short as you can make a sentence, and yet it firmly establishes Ishmael's dominance in the narrator-reader relationship. This is going to be his story and, if you are reading it, you have to take his word for it. Ah, but there's the rub. We are taking him at his word because we have no other choice. How do we even know his name really is Ishmael? I, for one, don't buy it. He didn't say "My name is Ishmael." We, as readers, are told to call him that, almost as though he snatched the name from thin air. There's more meaning in the name than that, however. In the Bible, Ishmael is the disinherited son of Abraham, cast out and called a "wild man" with "every man's hand against him." In Puritan New England, what better way to paint yourself as an outcast right from the get-go? The sentence lends him an air of wanderlust even before the story's begun.

There are parts of this book, at least in the first quarter or so, which are wholly entrancing. Melville has a talent for creating characters which are instantly interesting. I was especially taken with Father Mapple and his curious pulpit. While on his way to Nantucket and the whale ships, Ishmael stops in New Bedford and attends Mapple's church. There is a fierce gale blowing and the chaplain enters through a banging door, dressed in a sailor's hat and coat. It turns out, he was a "harpooner in his youth" and was "in the hardy winter of a healthy old age." (May someone say that of me one day.) Mapple climbs into his pulpit, shaped liked a ship's prow, and pulls up the rope ladder behind him. Not exactly your typical Sunday preacher. There is serious danger with a character like this, with an entrance like this, for the situation to degenerate into a Pirates of the Caribbean sermon, filled with things like "Avast! The end be near, me hearties!" Thankfully, Melville knows his craft and gives the good Father some subtle depth as a man who has learned hard and prophetic lessons in the whaleboat's blood-soaked bow.

This is not, however, the pattern throughout the book. Now, I firmly believe that every writer is allowed the occasional tangent, but chapter 32 put me in high dudgeon. You're darn right I said "high dudgeon." The chapter is titled "Cetology," as in the study of whales. This is not some ironic, tongue in cheek title, as I hoped it would be. No, this is actually a discussion of the various classifications of whales. We've finally made it aboard the Pequod, are heading out to sea, with Ahab not long introduced, when Ishmael takes the biggest left turn in storytelling. I've never felt so disjointed, so betrayed, in all my reading life. The chapter, which is noticeably longer than most others, reads like a high school biology textbook, and a really bad one at that. I get that Melville researched the bejeezus out of this book, but give me a break! I was all jazzed up for Ahab's crazy to set in, and instead got tricked into a marine biology lecture by a professor who's had tenure for way too long.

Of course, not far beyond my totally unnecessary trip to Whale World, Ahab's madness comes on full force. I was actually surprised at how quickly Melville gets down to it. I mean, the captain pretty much comes out of the gate as a loony. The impression I had always had was that the hunt for Moby Dick was a long standing obsession. It's quite the opposite. Ahab only lost his leg the trip prior to Ishmael's voyage. Bear in mind that whaling cruises were years-long affairs, and so he had quite a while to simmer in his vengeful thoughts. Nevertheless, the bluster and fire Ahab uses to stir up the crew was shockingly insane, and yet newly formed. His speech to the crew also sets up an interesting tension with the first mate, Starbuck (related to the coffee company?). The mate is upset — and seems to be the only one — because Ahab is going to forsake all other whales in favor of the great white one. In an industry which measures success by the ton, that's not exactly a course which will make the investors happy. So far, though, the crew is enthusiastically behind their mad skipper, and Starbuck has been driven into a corner by Ahab's vociferousness.

As significant as the plot of Moby Dick is — both culturally and from a novelistic point of view — the book is a character-driven story. I'm glad to be able to say that, since those are the novels I care most about in the end. I don't know that I particularly care about any of the characters yet. Any one of them could get eaten tomorrow and I think it would make for a good chapter. I am, however, interested in them. There is more to Ahab than simple vengeance, I'm sure of it, and I think the relationship with Starbuck could go somewhere worthwhile as well. As for Ishamael, well, I'm not sure of him yet. He's not the best narrator I've ever met, but, he certainly seems to be on a fascinating ride.

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About Chris Bancells

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/gordon_hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Another worthy entry in a great series, Chris. Looking forward to more -thanks!

  • duane

    That probably is the best opening line in a novel. I haven’t been able to get through Moby Dick yet. It sits on my shelf, taunting me and my lack of patience. Good writeup. Looking forward to the next installment.