I have finally conquered the 'great American novel'. There has never been a book that I have tried to read so many times and failed. Up until now, I have never read further than the first chapter, not finding the wit in Melville's depressing thoughts nor the interest in his depiction of the water in the world. However, as this is perhaps the ultimate man versus nature novel, it was time I completed the challenge.
'Call me Ishmael' is the brilliant first line, indicating that this story is to be told in the first person, although somewhere along the way it stops being his tale. A former sailor in nineteenth century America, Ishmael craves a return to the sea but can't afford to be a passenger so sets about being employed aboard a whaling ship. Here he meets the captain who lost his leg to a white whale and seeks revenge. But this is much later in the book.
This is a book of misconceptions. The titular character is a whale who doesn't make an appearance until late on in the tale - it actually isn't even mentioned until the second half. Plus the misconception that this is an adventure story set at sea when it is as much about the philosophy of whales and obsession. The best example of misconception is the heavily tattooed harpooner, who carried with him a string of human heads. Obviously a savage cannibal. But he turns out to be a a spiritual and affectionate friend and a vital character in the book.
Moby Dick, the whale, is representative of all whales, from the Biblical sermon of Jonah and the Whale to an entry on how to classify the different whales based on their fins and tails, to art and sculpture. There is also an essay chapter defending whaling and why the produce is so important to society. This is another obsessive whale factor and is terribly tedious. Plus a few chapters about the symbolism of the colour white. A very unusual structure for a novel. And all this before the ship's captain appears and shares his personal vengeful whale obsession.
At times this is a clever, witty and atmospheric book with some wonderful characters, that gives an insight to whaling, race and social class. At other times, the amount of detail is too much and feels disjointed and - obsessive. Maybe it's supposed to. Despite being about a hundred pages too long, it is a book worth reading, no doubt about that.
Originally published as Moby Dick; or, The Whale on 18 October 1851, by Richard Bentley. This edition published by MA Publishing on 11 October 2022.