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!