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Call me Ishmael. This resonant opening of Moby-Dick, the greatest novel in American literature, announces the narrator, Herman Melville, as he with a measure of slyness thought of himself. In the Scriptures Ishmael, a wild man sired by the overwhelming patriarch Abraham, was nevertheless the bastard son of a serving girl Hagar. The author himself was the offspring of two distinguished American families, the Melvilles of Boston and the Gansevoorts of Albany.
Melville's father cast something of a blight on the family escutcheon by his tendency to bankruptcy which passed down to his son. Dollars damn me, the son was to say over and over. When he sat down in the green landscape of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to compose Moby-Dick he was in debt, the father of one son, and another to be born a few days after the publication of the novel in England.
Melville had published five novels previous to Moby-Dick; the first two did well, and then with the capriciousness of the public the subsequent novels failed to please. He was a known literary figure with a fading reputation. How he came upon the courage to undertake the challenging creation of the epical battle between a sea creature, a white whale called Moby Dick, and an old captain from Nantucket by the name of Ahab is one of literature's triumphant mysteries. Add to that, as one reads, that he was only thirty-two years old.
Ten years before, in 1841, he had signed up as a common seaman on the whaling vessel Acushnet bound for the South Seas. Young Ishmael was drawn by the lure of the sea and by the wonder of the whale itself, the Leviathan, the monarch of the deep, "one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air." Until the discovery of petroleum oil in 1859 and Thomas Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp in 1879, whaling was a major commercial occupation in New England. Fortunes were made, grand houses were built, often with a "widow's walk" on the roof that testified to the great dangers of the enterprise. For the crew, service on a whaler was a drastic life of unremitting labor; foul, crowded quarters; bad food in scanty servings; contractual terms for years at miserable wages; brutalized companions picked up from all the ports of the world; tyrannical captains practicing a "sultanism" which Melville abhorred. A ship afloat is after all a prison. Melville was on three whalers in his four years at sea and from each, as we read in Typee and Omoo, the struggle is to escape, as he did when the boats anchored near exotic islands. He wrote about the misery of the whaling life, but not about whaling itself until he came to Moby-Dick. His imaginary whaler, the Pequod, death bound as it is, would be called, for an ordinary seaman, an agreeable berth. Ahab has no interest left beyond his internal struggle with one whale.
Still, there is whaling, the presumption of it. When a whale is sighted small boats are detached from the main vessel and the men engage in a deadly battle to try to match, with flying harpoons, the whale's immense strength and desperation. If the great thing is captured, the deck of the main ship becomes an abattoir of blood and guts. The thick blubber is to be stripped, the huge head to be drained of its oils for soothing ambergris, for candles; the bones of the carcass make their way into corsets and umbrellas and scrimshaw trinkets. Moby-Dick is a history of cetology, an encylopedic telling of the qualities of the fin-back, the right whale, the hyena whale, the sperm whale, the killer whale, classified by size in mock academic form as folio, octavo, and so on.
Information about a vanished world is one thing, but, above all else, this astonishing book is a human tragedy of almost supernatural suspensiveness, written in a rushing flow of imaginative language, poetical intensity, metaphor and adjective of consuming beauty. It begins on the cobbled streets of New Bedford, where Ishmael is to spend a few days before boarding the Pequod in Nantucket. The opening pages have a boyish charm as he is brought to share a bed with a fellow sailor, the harpooner Queequeg, an outrageously tattoed "primitive" who will be his companion throughout the narrative. Great ships under sail gave the old ports a rich heritage of myth, gossip, exaggeration, and rhetorical flights. Ishmael, on a Sunday, visits a whaleman's chapel to hear the incomparable sermon by Father Mapple on Jonah and the whale, a majestic interlude, one of many in this torrential outburst of fictional genius.
As Ishmael and Queequeg proceed to Nantucket, the shadows of the plot begin to fall upon the pages. The recruits are interviewed by two retired sailors who will struggle to express the complicated nature of Captain Ahab. We learn that he has lost a leg, chewed off by a whale, and thus the fated voyage of the Pequod begins. Ahab has lost his leg to a white whale Moby Dick and is consumed with a passion for retribution. He will hunt the singular whale as a private destiny in the manner of ancient kings in a legendary world. However, Ahab is real and in command. The chief mate, Starbuck, understands the folly of the quest, the danger of it, and, as a thoughtful man longing to return to his wife and children, he will speak again and again the language of reason. "Vengeance on a dumb beast that simply smote thee from the blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
The necessity of Starbuck's human distance from the implacable imperative of Ahab's quest illustrates the brilliant formation of this harrowing tale. But it is Ahab's story, his destiny, and, if on the one hand, he is a shabby, sea-worn sailor long mesmerized by mercurial oceans, he too has a wife at home and a child of his old age. We learn, as the story proceeds, that on a time ashore after his terrible wounding, he had fallen and by way of his whalebone leg been unmanned. He has suffered an incapacity not to be peacefully borne by one who in forty years had spent only three on land. Ahab knows the wild unsuitability of his nature, his remove from the common life.
Introduction Suggestions for Further Reading A Note on the Text
Loomings The Carpet Bag The Spouter-Inn The Counterpane Breakfast The Street The Chapel The Pulpit The Sermon A Bosom Friend Nightgown Biographical Wheelbarrow Nantucket Chowder The Ship The Ramadan His Mark The Prophet All Astir Going Aboard Merry Christmas The Lee Shore The Advocate Postscript Knights and Squires Knights and Squires Ahab Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb The Pipe Queen Mab Cetology The Specksynder The Cabin Table The Mast-Head The Quarter-Deck • Ahab and all Sunset Dusk First Night-Watch Forecastle—-Midnight Moby Dick The Whiteness of the Whale Hark!
The Chart The Affidavit Surmises The Mat-Maker The First Lowering The Hyena Ahab's Boat and Crew—-Fedallah The Spirit-Spout The Pequod meets the Albatross The Gam The Town Ho's Story Monstrous Pictures of Whales Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, &c.
Brit Squid The Line Stubb kills a Whale The Dart The Crotch Stubb's Supper The Whale as a Dish The Shark Massacre Cutting In The Blanket The Funeral The Sphynx The Pequod meets the Jeroboam • Her Story The Monkey-rope Stubb & Flask kill a Right Whale The Sperm Whale's Head The Right Whale's Head The Battering-Ram The Great Heidelburgh Tun Cistern and Buckets The Prairie The Nut The Pequod meets the Virgin The Honor and Glory of Whaling Jonah Historically Regarded Pitchpoling The Fountain The Tail The Grand Armada Schools & Schoolmasters Fast Fish and Loose Fish Heads or Tails The Pequod meets the Rose Bud Ambergris The Castaway A Squeeze of the Hand The Cassock The Try-Works The Lamp Stowing Down & Clearing Up The Doubloon The Pequod meets the Samuel Enderby of London The Decanter A Bower in the Arsacides Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton The Fossil Whale Does the Whale Diminish?
Ahab's Leg The Carpenter The Deck • Ahab and the Carpenter The Cabin • Ahab and Starbuck Queequeg in his Coffin The Pacific The Blacksmith The Forge The Gilder The Pequod meets the Bachelor The Dying Whale The Whale-Watch The Quadrant The Candles The Deck Midnight, on the Forecastle Midnight, Aloft The Musket The Needle The Log and Line The Life-Buoy Ahab and the Carpenter The Pequod meets the Rachel The Cabin •Ahab and Pip The Hat The Pequod meets the Delight The Symphony The Chase • First Day The Chase • Second Day The Chase • Third Day Epilogue
List of Textual Emendations Explanatory Notes Glossary of Nautical Terms Maps and Illustrations
2. How does the presence of Queequeg, particularly his status as a "savage," inform the novel? How does Melville depict this cultural clash?
3. How does whaling as an industry function metaphorically throughout the novel? Where does man fit in in this scenario?
4. Melville explores the divide between evil and virtue, justice and vengeance throughout the novel. What, ultimately, is his conclusion? What is Ahab's?
5. What do you think of the role, if any, played by religion in the novel? Do you think religious conventions are replaced or subverted in some way? Discuss.
6. Discuss the novel's philosophical subtext. How does this contribute to the basic plot involving Ahab's search for the whale? Is this Ishmael's purpose in the novel?
7. Discuss the role of women in the novel. What does their conspicuous absence mean in the overall context of the novel?
Posted July 3, 2012
"Moby Dick" is a classic for a reason. It's an amazing piece of literature and every person needs to read this before our society forgets how to read prose so beautiful.
However, I highly encourage everyone to spend the $0.99 to get a good copy. This particular copy (in more than one volume... don't get excited, "Moby Dick" much longer than 345 pages) is rife with horrendous errors that make it very difficult to read. Some words have random numbers in the middle of them in place of letters, whole sections in Vol. II Look like this: Ere*&#*(^B IIQIUEIUIOJ Che whale and Ah8987(*&(*&.
This copy is absolutely horrendous.
10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 2000
'Call me Tomás. Some days ago -never mind how long precisely- having little or no schoolwork to do, and nothing particular to interest me on TV, I thought I would read a little and see the literary part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.' The novel I am currently reviewing starts in quite a similar fashion as this, and while this may be the only interesting part of my review, in the same manner the start of Moby-Dick is the only part of the book that enjoys the very desirable of characteristic of not putting you to sleep. Granted. Melville writes well. The elaborate construction of his sentences and the use of figurative language are excellent. No question about that. Admitted. Moby-Dick has to be the most detailed account ever, and the situations in it are narrated quite vividly. I do not argue it. But, oh, fair reader, for crying out loud! This has to be the most dreadfully boring book ever written. Honestly, do you care THAT MUCH about whales and whaling, so as to read hundreds of pages on every single aspect of them. For, it is quite necessary to make that clear, only a small portion of Moby-Dick is a real novel, that is, a fictional narration. The rest is a bunch of essays on everything that you always wanted to know about whaling. Well written, yes, but absolutely painful! What kind of a person has the patience to endure all that! I mean, the book does start in quite an interesting fashion, but after a while... 'the length of that particular bone of a whale ranges between' 'the best way of tying the knot on such and such part of a whaling boat' 'so-and-so's picture of a whale was inaccurate because'...And he went on and on and on, forever! OK, whales are big, whales are formidable. I don't care! Get on with the story, please. How I managed to get to the end of it, I don't know. Of course, Moby-Dick has to be one of the most anti-ecological books ever written and Melville commits the huge biological blunder of considering whales to be fish, but I will not make any complaints in that sense, considering the time at which the book was written. But, seriously, I don't remember ever reading a book as boring as this one, and am quite astonished at the fact that there are people who honestly say they like it. Well, the fact that the book is so techically well written is the only reason I am not giving it just one star.
8 out of 15 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 11, 2003
It's hopeless. I'm absolutely trapped and captivated by Moby Dick. A while ago I bought a cheap copy out of deference to what I understood to be an American classic. When I was about halfway through, it hit me, and I knew I'd have to start it again as soon as I finished. I don't know if Melville intended it to be this way, but the book itself is a metaphor for a multi-year whaling voyage. You've got to be patient, just like a whaling crew. Melville chats about seemingly unrelated things, just like a crew would chat as it was anticipating its next whale. Wouldn't a crew become frustrated as it's waiting for something to happen? It's not a page-turner, so Tom Clancy fans beware. It's a vast, utterly expansive book that is best read while smoking your favorite pipe. Don't go back and re-read the parts that confuse you, you're going to have to read it again anyway to capture the whole thing. Once I had my Moby Dick epiphany, I began poring over all the special editions that have been produced over the years. I finally settled on this U of C, Barry Moser edition. It's perfect. Moser's illustrations are spooky, but not overbearing. None of the captions are specific to the story which still allows you to use your imagination. For instance, there's a beautiful cut of a whaler, but it's not labeled, 'The Pequod', it's just called, 'Whaling Ship.' It's a huge block of a book too, which perfectly fits the scale of the story. The only book that has had a more profound effect on me than Moby Dick is my King James Bible. Strangely, therein lies a clue to Melville's work. Why does Melville speak in parables so as to confuse some? Because it has not been given to them to understand.
6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 25, 2010
Posted August 12, 2012
Posted June 24, 2012
Posted September 12, 2011
Posted March 20, 2004
This is literally the most boring book I have read in my life. The writer goes on for entire chapters describing things like the colour green, and spewing similar drivel. Do not read this book unless you are some academic madman bent on sadism.
1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 12, 2004
Posted November 10, 2003
I realize that lovers of literature generally credit this book as the first great, American novel. Even with such credit attached to it, I found this book to be wordy and tedious. Now, it wouldn't be fair for me to criticize too much because I never finished the story. It could very well have become more interesting as one progressed further in the pages, but I could not find the energy to continue reading after more than ten pages that rambled on about the ' whiteness of the whale!' Melville overkills on description. He compares the whale to the whitest alabaster, to ivory, to bone, to snow, to ice and then on and on until you want to scream that you are fully aware that the whale is white, thank you very much!!! Whew! Anyway, I would like to add that I realize that Melville was writing in the early nineteenth century, and that many who read his book lived inland and would never see the ocean in their entire lives. I assume that is the reason for all the over-description. As for the positives, Queeqeg and Ahab are fascinating characters. Beyond that, this book rambles way too much. Save yourself a headache and rent the movie!
1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 24, 2002
I have nothing against Herman Melville. I have nothing against Ishmael. I have nothing against the Pequod, or Ahab, or Moby Dick himself. But I do have a lot against the endless facts about whales that occupy a huge majority of this book. It's just one thing after another. Only about one-third of the book is the story. The rest is a practical encyclopedia about whales and their habits. He should have written "Whales for People Who Like Endless Facts about Them" or something else of that nature, so that poor little school children could just read a good story without unnecessary details riddling the plot line. No doubt, this book is a classic: I'm the last person to say otherwise. But "classic" doesn't always mean "interesting". The positive characteristics of this book are undeniable. I just had a hard time getting through it. A VERY hard time.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 3, 2013
Posted November 15, 2013
Book is fantastic but this copy is not only just the last 266 pages of a 550ish page book, but also has numerous spelling/copy errors much like the following made-up but very accurate example: "I walked inKb/2%to the rghGb74%&&oom." Terrible.
Buy this book if that's what it takes to get a good copy. In my opinion it is worth it.
Posted October 15, 2013
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Posted December 26, 2010
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Posted June 12, 2005
Who am I to criticize Melville? But after reading, and chuckling, over some of my peer reader's reviews, I'm compelled to balance stars. I'm neither a critic nor literary scholar. I'm just someone who loves good literature, classic or not. Granted, Moby is long and detailed, but I contend it's all necessary and part of the story's framework. The themes are skillfully packaged in abstruse metaphors. And I agree that I had to use lexical aids to get through some of the dated vernacular. I even put down my cheap paperback for a Norton critical edition, but it was worth it. The language is beautiful and artistic. Read a benign chapter to a child and watch their expressions change as their imagination takes over their visage. Moby provides insight into today's archetypes found in pop-culture's 'Spongebob' or 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. Perhaps Moby isn't for everyone. Those who aren't interested in ages long past, historically accurate depictions of bloody exploitation, or ocular criticism of social hypocrisy, should probably stick to the bestseller lists. Entertain your brain. Every chapter is a piece of Melville's puzzle. When taken holistically, it all fits. Slow your monkey mind. Mindfully read. Open your eyes. Moby is still relevant today, especially to you good folks who think you live on that fabled 'City on the Hill'.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.