Friday, September 23, 2011

Book 113: The First Chapter.

I finished reading the first chapter and scribbled notes furiously until I could come and write a post. I don't think I have ever stopped myself after just one chapter to jot down my thoughts, but the words in the beginning of Moby-Dick were just so...powerful I felt the need to share my thoughts from the beginning.

I need to share the opening paragraph. From the first sentence, it is perfection:

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. 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. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

I love the passion Melville manages to portray from the beginning. He doesn't lead the reader on with pointless exposition, but instead shows us the power of the sea from the beginning. After all, we know the story is about the great oceans from just the title. But to capture the call and the beckoning of the sea to a character in such a beautiful way...I just love it. When he says, "I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can," I can feel that passion, not that I love the sea. But I see it similar to the way I view words, books, and reading. There are times when I crave comfort, so I run and grab my copy of Leaves of Grass and fall into it. I can understand that passion, and Melville evokes it right from the beginning.

I also love the mystery and aura Melville strikes into the heart of his readers with that first line, "Call me Ishmael." I have always heard that line and thought it an odd choice to open, but I can see how it fits, just pages into the novel. We are seeing the very soul of a man from the first page. It is honest and open in a way that many novels are not.

This beginning chapter also shows the reader that at times, there are many things greater than ourselves. We have desires, passions, that call to us and don't let go until we give way. As a reader, I saw that in Ishmael from the beginning. He feels a call to go to the sea, to look into its great depths and be comforted by whatever he may find there. The important thing, however, is that he has the desire and urge to go. And I know that Melville is talking about more than just the sea, but also about American destiny at this time period.

In the 1800s, Americans were pushing westward, exploring the dark places of the map and moving. If you really think about it, those early Americans and those who were born here, have the trait of exploration. It took guts to leave the known world behind and travel somewhere new to explore vast wildernesses. And the sea is still a wilderness to many. So not only is Melville commenting on the urge for Americans to continually discover, but also on the mysteries of the sea.

I find this whole beginning inspiring. I just want to sink further into the depth of Melville's words and see everything as he, and Ishmael, describe it to me. I, too, want to go to the sea and breathe in the salty air. It has sparked that adventurous spirit within me, and I cannot wait to see where Melville takes me.


  1. Something else is calling in that passage, bot just the sea. "[S]tanding in front of coffin warehouses"!

    I find the actual beginning of Moby-Dick, the business about the Sub-sub-librarian, similarly inspiring.

    To my horror, I have discovered editions of the novel, currently published, that omit the beginning. The abuse this poor novel has had to suffer - the original British edition omitted the last chapter.

  2. I've always wanted to read "Moby Dick", but never had the chance... But I have to admit that the beginning is pure awasomeness. It brings you in the middle of the character, and I love it :)

    P.S. nice job, what you're doing here is great :)

  3. Sounds like a fantastic way to begin reading the book. It makes such a huge difference when the story can capture you right from the get-go!

  4. Don't shoot me, but I decided to give this book a try after reading an article about large books in Oprah's magazine. One of the books talked about was Moby Dick, and I can't remember the exact wording, but the advice given was to basically just go into this book knowing nothing about it except that it was a sad adventure and to enjoy it purely for aesthetic reasons.

    I loved that advice and I checked out a copy from my library that summer (it was an Oxford World Classics Hardcover, a huge bonus for me. That's my favorite classics series). I really enjoyed reading Moby Dick just for the story.

    Now, I'm going to be completely honest here and admit that I didn't finish the book. I got a little over halfway through before abandoning it for something else. I was a little impatient back then, and if it took me longer than two weeks to finish a book, I'd just give up on it. I really want to go back and read it all the way through someday.

  5. That opening paragraph IS beautiful. So huge with anticipation and the sense that something big is coming -- not in plot, but in the kind of story that makes you lie back and just listen to wherever it takes you. I do like that.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It has me very interested -- and also, I love that you wrote on the first chapter. :-)

  6. I hope you keep enjoying the book. I love love love Moby Dick, but I know some readers get bogged down in the less poetic chapters. My favorite is the Queequeg and Ishmael chapter which is also near the beginning.

  7. Your comment on the theme of Americans being explorers was interesting, particularly WITH the mysteries of the sea - the sea is, in a sense, unexplorable, untamable, so an American explorer in a sea story has this interesting conflict - exploring something that is a completely different place the next day, a place that is untamable, and bigger than you can settle, you know?

  8. Possibly my all-time favorite novel. That sense of eerie foreboding keeps throughout the novel, no? It increases and decreases but never drops below the level at the intro! (I'm on a reread of the book myself. Just finished "The Pequod Meets the Virgin" chapter, actually!)

  9. Wow, you are making me want to read this. Like, right now. Even after I've heard from about a zillion people how much they hated Moby Dick. How cool that you're off to such a great start!!

  10. oooo now I really want to reread it, even just that first chapter....hmm, where will I fit it in?!