Monday, October 17, 2011

Book 113: I Battled the White Whale and Finished.

"Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"

I have spent over a month battling the white whale and reading Melville's words, and I am finally finished.

I don't say that with a sense of exasperation or with thankfulness. Instead, I am saying it with pride. I think Moby-Dick encompasses a great deal of fear for many. It is a large book, which sometimes focuses on the mundane, but it does so with such power that I think it intimidates. But I am finished. And I loved every page of it.

I think, that to truly appreciate Melville's work, we also have to appreciate the man behind it, as well as the times. Melville was an under-appreciated and underrated writer in his lifetime. While his first few books, including Typee which I read in college, had great success, Moby-Dick and some of his later works were flops. They didn't grab hold of their audience and many waved them off. Melville passed away with little "to-do" and underrated for his greatest novel.

In my opinion, I think Melville and Moby-Dick were ahead of their time. When it was published in 1851, Moby-Dick was too close to the times and the people. I think now we can appreciate what Melville did and what he accomplished.

Because not only is Moby-Dick about the battle of Captain Ahab and the whale who haunts him, it is also a great deal about the American spirit. Still young, the U.S. was fighting to find a place in the world amidst powerful nations who helped found us. Like Ahab, Americans were pushing out and conquering their demons of the past.

And, like Ahab, Americans were consumed by obsession, the need to move forward, conquer what land they could, and progress. Ahab is a man driven by obsession and revenge against the animal who took his leg. He convinces his crew to go along with his drive to find and kill the whale Moby Dick, and pushed them onward at all costs.

It is a novel full of that underlying throbbing passion. Between the mundane descriptions of whale anatomy, discussions on religion, savages, and relationships, the core of the novel throbs with the passion that Melville and his characters had for the sea. Because the sea called to them in a way that not many can understand. I think that some are meant for specific things, and those who choose to be career sailors are meant to be on the sea. The sea is something that many of us cannot understand. It is full of mystery, or power, and of things that we cannot see.

The sea drives the men onward. It is their home as well as the white whale's. It beckons to them throughout and while they think they understand its mysteries, they don't. I believe that is why Melville continued to focus on the little things about the sea and the ship. Where the sea and its creatures, including Moby Dick are natural, the men aboard their ship, their belongings, and their whaling practices are not. All those chapters of description, whaling gear, and objects are meant to show that while men believe they own and understand the sea, they are just strangers. They don't actually belong to that place.

I feel like I have to discuss the very end, so I am warning you here that I am talking about it in full detail. Skip down to where you see the line of stars to miss my discussion of the end.

When the end comes to the men aboard the Pequod, it comes fast. Part of me felt slightly robbed as I read the last three chapters, the only three chapters that the whale is actually in. I actually reread the end a few times before closing the book and setting it aside.

I determined that the end was fitting. Throughout the other 590 pages, Melville gives us the opportunity to know the men aboard the ship; we learn their struggles and personalities. So when the whale finally emerges, we cheer, hoping they will destroy the creature that has destroyed Ahab. It is gripping and frightening as they pursue the whale.

And then the end comes. As a reader, we realize that the whale is natural, he is doing as he wishes and as Ahab relentlessly pursues him, it all clicks into place. Ahab is obsessed with destroying what he believes has destroyed his life. Instead, Ahab is consumed by his desire to kill, and that is what leads him to his doom. He is pulled under by the whale and into the sea. He is destroyed by what he thinks he understands.

The rest of the ship and its crew are also destroyed, save for Ishmael, our narrator who seemed to disappear into the ship as the novel progressed. He is the lone survivor, picked up by another ship after floating in the sea for a day. He proclaims himself to be an orphan, abandoned to the sea by the crew of the Pequod. I felt for Ishmael then, as he understood what led to the demise of the men he had spent so much time with. The sea took them, not the whale, and I think that at the end, he realizes this.


At such length and with so much to discuss, I could go on for days about my thoughts of Melville's masterpiece. But I won't. I have to end it somewhere, so I will. Moby-Dick was a large adventure, with bits and pieces I'll never be able to forget. It is full of power and passion...and the American spirit. It was emotional and confusing, strange and familiar. It left me with a greater appreciation for what I cannot hope to understand about the sea and myself.

I am sure I will return to it again and again, with each new reading letting me discover more of its depths.

“ the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

*I am sure that there are many other people who have read this who would be far more eloquent than I in explaining just how wonderful of a book this really is. I cannot hope to convey how beautiful the language is. You just need to read it for yourself.*


  1. I have had this on my TBR pile all year and I wanted to get to it, but sadly I don't think I will have the time. Maybe next year?

    I did buy a anthology (is that the right word I'm looking for?) anyway, it's 7 of his books all compiled into one book that has been sitting on my shelf. I'd like to crack it open soon!

  2. HURRAH! I've never been able to finish it myself and tend to shy away from all of Melville's work based on my high school experience with Moby Dick excerpts. Maybe not fair, but that's the way it is! :)

    Good for you!

  3. Never read it and I suspect it has a lot to do with hearing a lot of people calling in "manly" or " a guy's book". Are they right?

  4. I'm impressed and jealous that you can mark this one off your list. It's not one that I've gotten to yet, but someday...

  5. Congrats on reading this one - you got through it much faster than I did!

  6. I have had this book - in print and in audio - on my shelves forever, and yet I've never even cracked the spine. It seems I'm really missing out though!

  7. Great post! I read Moby Dick for my masters comps. . .I was so intimidated going into it, but I was surprised (and relieved) that I really liked it! Like you, I also think I will turn to it again!

  8. The thing about Moby-Dick that people don't know is that it's a lot of fun, and Melville clearly had a lot of fun writing it. Some of the "nonfiction" bits were obviously just him amusing himself and saying, "Look how weird and cool the natural world is!" I remember that after I finished Moby-Dick, for a month or longer I missed reading it. I really wanted it to be 600 pages longer. I admit that this came as a surprise.

  9. With the exception of the cytology section, I really enjoyed this book and love your comment regarding its relation to the American spirit. I remember really being in awe when I finally finished this, and yes, there was definitely a sense of pride. Congrats.

  10. Note to those who haven't read the book before: I'm going to comment on the ending! :)

    Ok, so I read this last December and was just blown away by how much I loved it! I even love the science-y, list-y bits (I suspect this is also why I connected immediately to Medieval lit: I just love categorising the world, apparently). But like you, I ended up reading the last few chapters several times to feel a certain sense of 'closure.' I was never rooting for the men-the whale always had my sympathies, particularly after the description of what they did to the other whale they killed (ugh!), but I was a bit taken aback by the suddenness of its triumph. After reading it a couple times, though, I ended up satisfied, just like you. :)

    (Also, I don't know if you're on Netgalley, but there's an ARC there right now called Why Read Moby Dick? I just popped it on my Nook and plan to start it soon!)

  11. I can't wait to "finish" this one, too. I'm REALLY enjoying it, though I'm not far in at this point...

  12. I think, in a lot of ways, the end is supposed to be abrupt - I mean if the whole symbolism of the whale is that its God, or nature, or the ineffable, or whatever thing in the world is too big for us to grapple with, our ultimate goal, then the book honestly accepts that we may grapple with it, but to it, we're insignificant, just a speck that will be destroyed, leaving only shreds of identity behind. I think the utter, sudden, and nearly complete destruction of the Pequod, no long drawn out battle, no teasing sense that they could win, just the sudden force of natural obliteration, was a kind of awe inspiring, humbling force, something to remind us that we are mortal, and that we are building ships to fight in wars with forces we can never hope to challenge.

  13. oooo I can't wait to reread it! Although my book club is discussing it after Baby is born, so hmmm, must try to reread it sooner rather than later! I remember really liking it too but most of the passion and details you mention are forgotten. Can't wait to revisit it!