Those who know me well will be surprised to see me reviewing this book, because one of my stories is of my horror, when first trying to read it, to find an entire chapter about one rope. At that point, Moby Dick became the first book I ever stopped reading. However, I got interested in trying it again by listening to the Moby Dick Big Read. I listened to the beginning chapters and finally picked up a copy to finish it.
The plot, of course, is about the sailor Ishmael, who decides to go whaling for the first time, the people he meets, and his experiences–and about the obsession of his captain, Ahab, to kill the whale that took his leg.
Moby Dick is not for everyone. The novel is not simply an adventure tale about whaling but also a dissertation on whaling history, a series of philosophical essays, an explication on types of whales, on the different parts of a whale, on pieces of whaling equipment (hence, the chapter on the rope), even a musing on the color white.
The novel also has a sort of schizophrenic narration, starting out as first-person limited from the point of view of Ishmael, but then at other times taking the point of view of Ahab. The writing style rips back and forth from simple story telling to a kind of heightened, bombastic oratory. Characters do not so much speak as give speeches.
The novel is immense, but it is meant to be immense–the way Melville saw America and its possibilities. I have over the years read different interpretations of this work (the whale as a symbol of evil, etc.), but one that strikes a chord with me is that it is a reflection on some of the American political ideas of the time, particularly Manifest Destiny. While seeming to admire the grandiosity of such ideas, Melville is, with one whaling story, also warning of their possible effects and ramifications.
I can see why some academics have devoted their careers to this work, because it can be endlessly examined and interpreted. I finished reading it this time, but I can frankly admit that it is still a bit too much for me and is probably better suited for someone who is more contemplative in his or her reading.