A few years ago, I asked a group of young people if they had ever read the finest novel ever written in English. They thought that they had probably read it, but asked me if I could be a little bit more precise about its title. I said it was called “Moby Dick”.
And they were wrong. None of them had ever read it. One person even said that the book could not be considered because it was written by an American. The author’s name, of course, is Herman Melville:
Once he had finished with whaling and the sea, Melville came to live safely on land. Here is his house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts:
A lot of people, of course, are put off by the sheer size of the book. In the three volume British first edition, there were 927 pages. In the American first edition there were 635. (Bigger pages, presumably?).
Help, though, is at hand. I have prepared a handy guide as to which of the CXXXIV chapters can be missed out without causing any real damage to the story, or to your understanding of the plot. The problem was that, at the time the book was written, around 1850-1851, there were no television documentaries. Almost nobody had ever seen a whale. Many people had never even seen the sea. More or less nobody knew anything of whaling:
The reader, therefore, had to be informed about the Natural History issues involved, and that, dear reader, is the reason for the great number of the, as it were, “non-fiction” chapters.
In my humble opinion, therefore, do not trouble yourself too much with:
Chapters 24, 31, 32, 44, 54, 55, 56, 59, 61, 62, 64, 67, 73, 74, 75, 76, 79, 81, 82, 84, 85, 87, 88, 89, 91, 94, 101, 102, 103 and 104.
Wow!! If that doesn’t attract you, nothing will. In addition, these chapters could be missed out, but they may add a smidgin to your understanding of the book. These are:
Chapters 39, 40, 41, 83, 93 and 100.
You must read absolutely all of the last thirty chapters, which tell the story of what happens when Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod finally set their eyes on a rather angry Moby Dick. (It doesn’t go well.) If you have ever read the book of the film “Jaws”, you will find this last section very reminiscent indeed of that modern classic.
Even if you have doubts, it is not difficult to give it a go. You can download Moby Dick to virtually any type of machine from Amazon, including some of the more modern lawnmowers.
It is free.
For a small fee, you can even download a version with pictures.
And then, away you go!
The book is stunning. Pay careful attention to what the characters say and the events which befall them. You will often find that the author has skilfully linked them together. Perhaps he has provided echoes of words and events as the plot unfolds chapter by chapter. This foreshadowing throughout the book creates great tension, because the reader is given broad hints of what catastrophes are in store for the protagonists (who themselves often refuse adamantly to heed these warnings and carry on regardless to their eventual destruction). Here is Captain Ahab:
And Starbuck. The coffee chain is named after him:
Originally, it was going to be called Pequod’s after the ship:
They’re probably lucky it wasn’t named after the whale. Here is Queequeg, one of the three harpooners:
And here is his coffin, floating in the sea:
D. H. Lawrence, the greatest English novelist, called Moby Dick:
“one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world”
“the greatest book of the sea ever written”
Here are half a dozen quotations to whet your appetite:
“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.”
“That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
“…mastering his emotion, Starbuck calmly rose, and as he quitted the cabin, paused for an instant and said to Ahab: “Let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”
“Tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding; his eyes glowing like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruin; Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven.”
“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. It was rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”
“There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to 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.”
And don’t forget, of course, Moby Dick has the most famous beginning of any novel:
“Call me Ishmael.”
The quotations from the end are good, too, but I won’t spoil it for you!
28 responses to “Call me Ishmael”
Yes, many a student of literature has written and essay on the mean of, “Call me Ishmael.”
Thanks a lot for that. I had never investigated exactly what this phrase meant as I thought, in my ignorance, that he was just introducing himself. Anyway, a quick look at “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_(Moby-Dick)” proved exactly where Mr.Melville got it from.
This is a great post. I need to go back and re-read Moby Dick. I read it for the first time right after I graduated from high school. I should re-visit it sometime soon.
Thank you for your kind words. I would try reading it without the chapters that I list. I suppose that many people in the USA at the time had never seen a whale and knew nothing about the ocean and these chapters perform the task now carried out by television programmes.
I’m going to take your advice!
Not sure I’m buying the “finest novel ever written…” Claim, but certainly an inspiring review!
Thanks very much. Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” is very good, as is “Anna Karenina”. Both of them are pretty long though. Maybe “All Quiet on the Western Front”?….but no novels about making aircraft kits are allowed, or indeed, anything about werewolves!
I admit it I have never read the book but I have seen a few movie adaptions as well as a documentary about the true story that inspired it. Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard from Star Trek) did an excellent version in the late 1990s with the guy who played Elliot in ET as Ishmael
You have gone about it exactly the right way. You should always see the film, if you can before you read the book. Patrick Stewart’s version is the best, but the Gregory Peck one is good too. Have a go at reading the book without the chapters in my list…that shortens it to about 200 pages. The true story that inspired is also excellent by the way…it’s difficult to imagine that Sperm Whales were up to 100 feet long before Man exterminated most of them.
An excellent book, but if your review here doesn’t intrigue some people – they’re crazy! Great job, John!!
Thanks very much. As always you are very kind. A little higher up the screen, “atcDave” poses the question of what would actually be the greatest novel ever written. I suppose I don’t really know, but it is a little silly to insist that it should be written by an English author, as my fellow teachers did!
I don’t see why not. Nowadays I find very few novels that have an original plot, but over the years, someone must have done a job worth the title. No?
Frankly I don’t think just one can be singled out as the best, personal tastes would interfere in the final decision, right?
I did enjoy the book (more than 40 years ago), but would be hard put to call any one novel ‘the greatest’.
Fair enough, Derrick, but if not “the greatest”, then what would be your favourite novel? It’s a really difficult question. The Guardian offered, in order, 1-10, Don Quixote, Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Tom Jones. Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Dangerous Liaisons, Emma and Frankenstein. The rest of their list is at……
For me, only in the 20s, do they hit upon anything really good!
I rather liked James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the artist ……’. But then you have ‘A La Recherche……’, ‘Les Mis….’ ‘ War and Peace’ etc., etc. I know only the first is written in English
I have read a shortened version in high school in the early 60s.
Yes, I don’t think there is any need to read the whole thing. Our tastes have changed nowadays, and we don’t have the time for such weighty tomes! Thanks for your input, Pierre.
How brilliant. With you chapter skipping advice I will consider giving it another belated chance!
Yes, if England had had a corner cutting team, I would have been in it!
I Love the story of Moby Dick, John. I try to catch all the movies that come out. Fascinating subject.
It certainly is Amy. And it just shows where a negative obsession can lead you. Thanks for dropping by.
I read the abridged version of Moby Dick long back and it was fascinating 🙂
And now’s the time to refresh your memory with the film! If you’ve seen Gregory Peck then try the Patrick Stewart version, or vice versa. Thanks a lot for your interest, by the way!
I did see the new movie but never knew there was a Gregory Peck version, Thank you for the information. This one goes on my list 🙂
A fascinating post John and to my shame I have not read the book. I may have to rectify that now. x
I hope you enjoy it if you read it. Don’t be afraid to miss out the bits I suggest!
I remember having to read the book back in high school as an independent study of the symbolism of the story. Good story but very long to read.
You are quite right. It is a very long book indeed. You could always try missing out the chapters that I have listed above. Alternatively, both of the films are really good. Thanks a lot for your interest, by the way.