Call me Ishmael. One of the most famous first sentences in English-language literature. And yet, while most people know that Moby Dick is the name of a white whale and that he was pursued by one-legged Captain Ahab, how many have the courage to sit down with all 641 small-font pages and follow the ship Pequod round the globe?
I confess I didn’t. I needed the help of William Hootkins’ incredible audio recording (Naxos, 2005) to get me through it. It’s close to 25 hours long and it feels like I spent two or three months slowly listening to the dense prose, dipping into the Penguin Drop Caps edition when I had to return the audiobook to the library and wait for it to be available again.
I don’t think this book could be published today. We don’t have time for long sentences or exhaustive treatments of a subject. We deal in slogans and sound bytes. Who sits by the fire with family and reads aloud from a book when there are lifetimes of YouTube videos to watch?
So why does Moby Dick endure?
First, I think we are still fascinated by the other world Melville describes. We who live on land and flick a switch for illumination are curious about life at sea and the harvesting of sperm oil for light.
Second, Melville writes some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. Here’s the third paragraph of Chapter 114, The Glider:
These are the times, when in his whale-boat the rover softly feels a certain filial, confident, land-like feeling towards the sea, that he regards it as so much flowery earth [hear all those f’s and l’s?]; and the distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts, seems struggling forward, not through high rolling waves, but through the tall grass of a rolling prairie [sibilants]; as when the western emigrants’ horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure. [w’s, v’s z’s]
Third, just when you’re starting to wonder “So what?” about a particular set of facts, Melville ties it all together with a philosophical statement that hits you in the solar plexus. Regarding the killing of one old, blind whale, he writes:
But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. (Chapter 81, The Pequod meets the Virgin)
Oh man! admire and model thyself after the whale. Do thou, too, remain warm among ice! Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (Chapter 68, The Blanket)
Yes, there are books as long or longer published today (Think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Stephen King’s JFK) but they are plot-heavy or character-driven. Moby-Dick, on the other hand, is the most unusual mash-up of all things whale, bookended by a little bit of story. Ishmael, in need of money, signs on to go a-whaling and, despite his forebodings, gives his oath to that madman Ahab that he’ll pursue the white whale to the death with him. After many months, its hold full of barrels of sperm-oil, the Pequod finally catches up with Moby Dick, and, tragically, goes down with all her crew, stove by the unconquerable old whale.
Most of the book is on the history, laws, types, anatomy, and mythology of whales and whaling and about daily life on board a whaling vessel, including the tools of the trade and the use of the tools in killing, cutting up and boiling down the whale. In the 1850s, reading Moby Dick would have given anyone who thought the price of sperm oil too high or took lighting their lamps for granted unbounded respect for the men who risked their lives hunting sperm whale.
Another reason this is a classic is because it’s a prime example of American Romanticism. It’s got all the characteristics of the era:
What saves Moby Dick from being overwhelmed with sentiment is Melville’s sense of humour. It’s amusing when Ishmael is forced to room with Queequeg and thinks he’s going to die and then the two of them wake up snuggled against each other. Stubb’s motivational monologues to his boat crew are hilariously contradictory. The episode of Queequeg and his custom-made coffin is cheerfully macabre.
There are many more things that could be said about Moby Dick, but you’ll have to discover it for yourself, with William Hootkins’ help, perhaps.
A word about the Penguin Drop Caps edition: Jessica Hische’s cover illustration is a letter M cut through horizontally by a harpoon. Above the harpoon the two peaks of the M represent the sky with two birds at the very top. Below, the three legs of the M are shaped like whale tails. A decorative rope swirls around the letter and forms a cursive I where it attaches to the harpoon—for Ishmael or I, the first-person narrator? The book is a vivid cool green, with dark green and beige accent colours. It’s the thickest of the series, though Middlemarch has more Bible-thin pages. Really makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you come to the last sentence.