The Vile Taste of Vengeance
In the history of the printed text, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick stands tall as a towering achievement in American literature. Published in 1851, it is a timeless classic that, up until today, remains to be one of the most studied literary work. Its impact in American literature, and literature in general, is deeply-rooted. Its influences still reverberate today and has also inspired many a writer. It is part of numerous must-read lists and is a backbone of the American education system curriculum for literature. What does this classic hold that it sits high up in the literary pedestal?
The tale starts when Ishmael traveled from Manhattan Island to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the hopes of signing up for a whaling expedition. On the way, he met and befriends Queequeg, a Polynesian harpooner whose father once ruled the fictional island of Rokovoko. Together, they ventured into Nantucket where they were both hired to man the whaling ship, Pequod.
Pequot is captained by a mysterious and reclusive man, Captain Ahab. As Pequod unfurls its sails to commence its journey, it slowly dawns on Ishmael and Queequeg that what they’ve signed up for is going to be no ordinary hunting expedition. Unbeknownst to them, they have been hired to be a part of a manhunt that will take them across the seven seas. It is going to be a journey like no other.
“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick
On the surface, whales and the whaling industry are the main motifs of the narrative. Whaling was once a thriving industry that once shaped the history of America. Through Moby Dick, Melville wrote a vivid portrayal of this once seminal industry. It was further supplemented by encyclopedic descriptions of whales, its anatomy, its social structures and its behaviors. Cetology, the zoological classification and natural history of whales, was extensively discussed by Ishmael, giving a background to readers.
But Moby Dick is more than just about whales and the whaling industry. In Alternatively titled The Whale, it is also the story of one man and his quest to capture a mythical leviathan that has haunted him ever since their first encountered it. At its core, Captain Ahab’s obsession for vengeance against Moby Dick pervades the narrative, becoming one of its centrifugal points. As Pequod set sail, Captain Ahab quite eloquently enunciated the main mission of Pequod – to seek revenge on the sea monster that caused one of his legs to be amputated. To remind him of his lifelong endeavor, he replaced his leg with a prosthesis fashioned from a whale’s jaw.
Apart from Captain Ahab’s prosthetic legs, the rich tapestry of the novel is hemmed with several allegories and allusions to subjects that were critical at the time of the novel’s publication. There were undertones of colonialism and racism, represented through Queequeg and the diverse crew of the Pequod. Because of his bulky tattooed built and background, Ishmael once perceived Queequeg, including his tribe, as a cannibal. Overtones of homosexual tension reverberate at surface level whilst slavery was a recurring theme.
“All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.” ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick
In harmony with the different themes is the contrast of two personalities that dominate the narrative. The text was embedded with fine but subtle textures of the character study of the between Captain Ahab and Ishmael. Whilst both were orphaned, they were driven by different motivations – Captain Ahab by anger and Ishmael by in-depth pondering. Captain Ahab’s quest for vengeance drove most of the narrative but Ishmael’ meditations formed a stable cornerstone for the rest of the narrative.
With a grand premise, Melville showcased the best of his repertoire. If there is one particular element that made Moby Dick tower above its contemporaries, it is his ambitious, but mostly visionary writing. Resourceful and innovative, Melville employed a multitude of literary and structural devices make a seemingly simple whaling adventure appear robust. Ishmael’s drove the narrative using different genres to expound on the literary sequences.
There is a richness about the text that drives it. The rich religious overtones punctuate the meditative text. Some were in the form of quandaries but rather than being rhetorical, these interjections are open-ended passages that provide discussion points. The language’s archaic quality slows down the narrative. Despite the slow pace, the language was allusive, meaningful, and, at some points, uncharacteristically poetic.
These was all supplemented by the distinct personalities of Captain Ahab and Ishmael. Captain Ahab’s one-dimensional personality shrouds him a mystique that adds intrigue to the overall narrative.The transition of the voice gave the narrative an intriguing complexion. As the story develops, Captain Ahab’s voice became more and more distinct and at tone time, his voice has even fused with Ishmael’s. From its visionary writing to its cultural ruminations, what surfaces is its American qualities. Despite its several layers, its American identity is undeniable.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Moby Dick is one of the most ruminating reading experiences in the world of literature. The meditations of Ishmael and Captain Ahab’s fiery presence compound to create a stirring reading experience that sails high in the halls of literature. The stark contrast between the personalities provided a rousing backdrop to an eventful whaling expedition. Its execution is far from perfect. In fact, it is flawed but it is also these flaws that make gave it such a different appeal.
The quintessence of an American novel, Moby Dick is a towering literary achievement that has set the bar high for many aspiring American writer. With influences that reverberate today, it is, without a doubt, a cornerstone of American literature, and literature as a whole.
Characters (30%) – 14%
Plot (30%) – 12%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has always intrigued me. However, one thing kept me ambivalent – its very low rating in Goodreads. At the start, it was going well, then it got to the part where whales and whaling industry was discussed extensively. I plunged into the narrative believing that I could debunk what I felt was an unfair evaluation. I guess everyone was right in their evaluation. Moby Dick is an innovative literary work but its complexities render most of it unreadable. Props to Melville for his visionary writing but he lost me with the tedious encyclopedic knowledge on the whaling industry. Whilst it was fascinating, it was also exasperating and very difficult to get in to.
Author: Herman Melville
Publisher: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Publishing Date: 1989
Number of Pages: 490
Genre: Adventure Fiction, Encyclopedic Novel
“It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception. (Source: Goodreads)
About the Author
(Herman Melville, 1870. Oil painting by Joseph Oriel Eaton) Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819 in New York City, the third of Allan and Maria Melvill’s eight children.
Melville’s formal education began in 1824 when he and his older brother, Gansevoort, were sent to New York Male High School. Five years later, they were both transferred to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School where Herman was enrolled in the English department. Their father’s death in 1832 caused a great shift in their lives. Because of their financial situation, Melville clerked for a bank. He also once moved to Massachusetts for a teaching job and even worked as a crew member on a boat.
After the family moved to Albany in 1834, Melville enrolled at the Albany Academy and Albany Classical School, studying classical literature. It was also there that he began writing poems, essays and short stories. After his years at sea, he settled once again in New York, where, in 1845, he completed Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, his first book. A year later, it was published in London. Typee’s sequel, Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas was published in 1847.
In 1851, Melville’s most prolific and most critically-acclaimed work, Moby Dick was published. His other works include Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), Pierre (1852), and The Encantadas (1854). He also published short stories and a score of poetry collections such as Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) and John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).
Melville married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw in 1847 with whom he sired four children. He passed away on September 28, 1891.