I’ve heard a good deal of not-too-flattering things about Moby-Dick. Even as a lover of classic works of fiction, it seemed like Herman Melville’s most famous novel (Quick! Name another one of his published works in the next three seconds! No cheating!) was one of the most polarizing I had ever come across.
It’s a masterpiece!
It wouldn’t have stood the test of time if it wasn’t any good!
There are entire chapters about how whale lamp oil is made. LAMP OIL!!!!1!!
Now, I’ve always been a fan of Charles Dickens, who is equally polarizing. He was paid by the word (and BOY did he make the most of it). He expounded, to great length, on the workings (or the failed workings) of the courts and poor houses and orphanages of the day. He even deus ex machina-ed characters off his pages by having them spontaneously combust out of existence.
And yet I love his style. I love the wordiness, the way his prose and his descriptions seem to pull me all the way back to that time period.
But still, I was put off reading Moby-Dick because I was afraid it would be interminable. And because once I’d read it, or attempted to, I’d no longer be able to avoid Melvillian discussions by claiming ignorance. I would have to put forward an opinion, and it might not be a good one.
So here I am, committing myself to reading the thing. One chapter at a time, and dissecting it, like someone with way more time on my hands than I actually possess.
First, here’s my copy of the book.
I probably have it stashed in some collection on my Kindle (probably labeled “Books I Tell Myself I’ll Read But Netflix Just Keeps Adding New Stuff”), but I went for a paperback copy from my shelf, picked up in a library book sale two years ago.
(Also, that cover is amazing. And I have a great suspicion that the sailor on the upper-right may be about to break out with some nautical jazz hands.)
And so I begin with Chapter One: Loomings
Call me Ishmael.
One of the most famous first lines in literary history. As a writer, studying first lines is one of the things you often do, looking for which ones grab the reader, which ones stick with you, and why.
This one makes the narrator, Ishmael, approachable, as if he’s allowing you, Dear Reader, a bit of familiarity that he doesn’t share with just anyone.
Call me Ishmael.
Ishmael is immediate with telling us about his penchant for slipping into dark, dreary moods and needing to “drive off the spleen”.
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.
Right there. That is a great sentence. I must have read it about ten times before I could continue any further. Honestly, knocking people’s hats off might just become my new favorite thing. And I can simply blame it on my spleen. Brilliant!
Ishmael then takes us on a tour of the city, while telling us about the great and magnetic pull that water has on man.
Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.
But it’s not merely city-folk who fall under this spell. It’s in man’s nature, no matter his home.
Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it.
History and mythology are full of tales of people going off to sea, venturing into the unknown. Off the edge of the map. Here, there be dragons. Mermaids, selkies, sunken treasure, underwater cities, Davy Jones, Anuket, Poseidon, Neptune, the list goes on and on.
There is magic in it.
Ishmael continues (he seems to be quite the loquacious sort, I’ll give him that) about how he prefers to travel when it comes time to air out the ol’ spleen.
I always go to see as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.
The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!
You know, Ishmael? I think I’m starting to take a liking to you.
Finally, Ishmael reveals that his chosen voyage is going to be a whaling voyage (*cue dramatic sound effects*). Because he is a curious man. Because he is adventurous. Ishmael’s soul is not a timid one, and we’ve been invited along for the journey.
By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.
Words and Phrases I Had to Look Up:
Circumambulate: (verb) to walk around (something)
I should have figured out that one on my own. Circum… Circle. Ambulate… Amble. Circle… walk. Thanks for nothing, That One Year of Latin I Took in High School.)
Pythagorean maxim: Okay, this one took a bit of research, and when I looked it up, I realized… Oh, there’s a fart joke in Moby-Dick.
Here we go: For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)…
A bit of Googling told me that the Pythagorean maxim mentions a little something about not eating beans, because they make you gassy. (Edit: I found this just a minute ago, which explains things much better than I can.)
So, fart joke, in chapter one of Moby-Dick. Oh, Melville. You old rascal, you.
Next week? Chapter Two: The Carpetbag.