Moby-Dick was an odyssey of revenge and madness the likes of which the world had never seen. Author Herman Melville drew inspiration from his own time at sea and spent over a year and a half crafting what would eventually be honoured as a Great American Novel. I say eventually because its initial reception wasn’t exactly rapturous. Its structure and content confused critics upon its release and it was an abysmal commercial failure. Seemingly destined for obscurity, it was only after Melville’s death that it was re-evaluated and given the acclaim it deserved.
“Call me Ishmael.” Our story begins with possibly the most famous opening line in literary history. Ishmael acts as our narrator throughout the story. Amiable and worldly, he provides us with a strong (if unorthodox) narrative voice that shines through on each page. He comes to Massachusetts intent on signing up to a whaling ship. Joining the crew of the Peqoud, he is placed under the command of Captain Ahab. A one-legged man with a tenuous grip on his sanity, Ahab is driven by a single purpose. He vows to kill Moby Dick, an enormous sperm whale that took his leg years ago. To achieve this, Ahab will chase him across all of the Earth’s oceans and beyond.
The book’s structure is one of its most intriguing aspect. Entire chapters are frequently dedicated to Ishmael detailing the immense majesty of the whale. Its biology, skeletal structure, eating habits; every aspect of these creatures is outlined in the most minute detail. The overall effect is a newfound respect and admiration for the whale as well as awe at just how much they truly dwarf human beings. It’s no surprise that the book’s initial title (which ended up being its alternate title) is The Whale.
The book has fascinated critics for generations. Many have noted recurring Christian elements which is unsurprising, considering that Melville had been said to have taken inspiration from The Bible itself. Some characters make these references explicit (Ahab claims to be “possessed by all the fallen angels”) whereas other times they’re more symbolic. Many of the crew members’ names are taken from Old Testament stories, with them and their namesakes showing significant parallels. There are also some light jabs at religious extremism and hypocrisy, things that got Melville in some hot water at the time.
Pinning down the exact meaning or intent behind a work as sprawling as Moby-Dick is difficult. Race, religion, colonialism, class distinctions; these are all explored by Melville to some extent. Perhaps the novel isn’t necessarily “about” any of these things but finds itself in the combination of all of these elements into one cohesive whole. This cohesion is in itself a small miracle given how wonderfully strange and idiosyncratic the book can be.
Moby-Dick is not a light read. Melville’s writing style is poetic but unusual, not helped by the lack of narrative drive at various points. This can make it an odious undertaking, one that takes concentration and patience. But those who persevere will be rewarded with a timeless and strange journey like no other.