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The Great Book Adventure: Moby Dick – Part Three

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The whole time I've been reading Moby Dick, I haven't been able to stop myself from thinking about the movie Jaws. It doesn't take much in the way of mental fortitude to see the similarities. The differences, however, have been so striking that I wonder if Spielberg learned a lot from Melville's failings.

The masterstroke of Jaws is that it takes three-quarters of the movie for the audience to actually see the shark, but you do get hints, and this is where Melville missed the boat (every pun intended). The copy of Moby Dick I have been reading is 458 pages, and the whale doesn't make an appearance until page 434. Oh, there are other whales in the story. The Pequod's crew runs down and kills several animals, but they're all completely meaningless. The chase scenes reveal little, if anything, about the characters and they only give Melville more opportunity to get off topic. More to the point, not a single one of them is Moby Dick.

In Jaws, after the shark has eaten a couple tourists, the crazies head out and knock off some random fish, but in the movie this is a scene of only a few minutes. In Moby Dick, the senseless killing goes on for hundreds of pages. In the movie, the madness is heightened because you and me and Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider all know that that big tiger shark that gets killed is not Jaws, even though the rednecks don't understand. In the book, nobody pretends that the Sperm and Right whales the Pequod nabs are the titular monster. In the movie, there is good dramatic reason for the killing. In the book, it strikes me as a waste of space.

In terms of proportion, the two are fairly similar as to how long it takes for the monster to actually show up and start trashing things. Their essential difference, which makes the movie great and the book depressingly disappointing, rests in the tease. From the first scene in Jaws, you know the shark is trouble. You may not see him, but you do see his effects (mostly as bloody water and the occasional limb). Gradually, the audience gets to see pieces of him: first one fin, then two, then a dark blur beneath the water's surface. It builds suspense and lets you know the beast is real. Most importantly, it keeps you focused on the story. Even though it takes more than an hour to actually see the shark, we the audience never lose sight of him.

There are no hints in Moby Dick. The whale never makes an appearance in the distance (except perhaps in the chapter called "The Spirit-Spout", but that is never resolved to any satisfaction). The crew never comes upon any wrecked ship which they can look at and say "Hmmm…this looks like the work of the white whale." There isn't even rumor of him. The Pequod meets with several other ships during her voyage, but no one has seen anything resembling Moby Dick. I am then forced to ask myself, what the devil is the point? Other than to give Melville yet more excuse to run out on his beloved tangents, why have them meet any ships at all? The book is so devoid of its monster that, when he finally turns up, I couldn't give a toss.

The last three chapters detail the showdown between Ahab and Moby Dick and, to be fair, they are mildly compelling when considered in a vacuum. The whale has an air of the supernatural with its malicious attacks, shattering both boats and, ultimately, the Pequod with devilish strategy. The problem, however, is that the reader is plunged into a final reckoning which has no prelude. There was no give and take, no tension building skirmishes or close calls.

Because we don't see the white whale until the last battle, we have nothing invested in seeing him destroyed. When the chase finally got underway, I just wanted Ahab to hurry up and kill the damn thing – or himself – so the book would end. In fact, had I not been committed to writing this column, I would have quit the novel long before seeing Moby Dick. The only reason I pushed on to the finish is because I wanted to be authoritative in saying that this book is the most overrated story I have ever read.

Despite the awkward banter, I am always satisfied with the end of Jaws. The monster (who has certainly earned the name) is blown to smithereens, I feel some emotional loss at the death of Quinn, and it is a fairly happy ending. At the end of Moby Dick, the whale drags Ahab under and I am thrilled that I will never see either of them again. I didn't even touch on Melville's narrative issues, but suffice it to say that old Herman would have been taken to task by my freshman creative writing teacher for changing styles so often.

In the end, I think I feel deceived as a reader. Had this book been presented to me as a non-fiction piece, it would have been easier to swallow the chapters on ambergris (ch. 92) or the mechanics of a whale's breathing (ch. 85). It is never presented as such. Indeed, Moby Dick is talked about as one of America's great novels. I just don't see it. Cut out all the nonsense about the science and business of whaling and you might, I stress might, end up with a good short story. Though I have zero inclination to do so, I would be curious to see how long the book would be if it was stripped down to only the plot-relevant chapters. Regardless,I am of the unequivocal opinion that this book should be shot right out of the canon and cast back into the tepid waters from whence it came.

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

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About Chris Bancells

  • Steve F

    Thanks for the article – the paralleles between Moby Dick and Jaws have always fascinated me.

    Your frustration with Melville comes through loud and clear, but isn’t it unfair to compare a rambling 19 century novel and a modern high-tech film? SUrely the real comparison would be between Spielberg’s and Huston’s films, where I believe Moby Dick more than holds its own.