Posted by: Nathan | October 26, 2006

Archive Review: Moby-Dick

I won’t mince words: Moby-Dick is epic both in scope and length; if you’re looking for a weekend read, this isn’t the novel for you. That said, it is one of the most incredible books I’ve ever encountered. Every word, every chapter, every scenario is filled with meaning–Melville doesn’t take a sentence off in this work.

Most of you are probably already familiar with the main story of Moby-Dick. Ishmael joins up with a ship (The Pequod) leaving the east coast to go on a three-year whaling trip. The ship is captained by Ahab, a man who isn’t necessarily in his right mind and has had his leg bitten off by the great white whale Moby-Dick. Ahab spends the next year and a half or so searching for the highly elusive whale (they catch other whales and have other adventures in this section), but eventually one of the crew spots the whale and the hunt is on. I won’t tell you how it ends, but it’s amazing.

What makes this book so renowned? Melville is the master of symbol–just about everything in the book takes on symbolic meaning(s) in addition to the purpose it serves in the narrative. The book is structured so that–for the bulk of the text–one chapter is main plot, the next is symbolic exploration, and back and forth. During my first read-through, I missed the symbolism (I was too young); my second reading in college showed me what I had missed. For example, one of my favorite chapters is “The Lee-Shore.” The lee is the side out of the wind; in this chapter, Melville compares those who stay on the lee-shore to those who venture out into the depths of the windy ocean: “But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God- so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” It’s fantastic writing.

Another reason why the book is so applauded is the plot itself: Ahab’s (humanity’s) battle against Moby-Dick (death, life, fate, God, etc.). As you probably guessed, Ahab’s quest for the white whale is from where I derived this blog’s title. Ahab isn’t willing to accept his unfortunate fate–he wants to find the whale and kill it. He wants to know the answers. Ahab defies incredible odds, good advice, and his own mortality to understand the universe just a little bit; he cannot be reconciled to less: either he kills the whale, or it kills him. It’s the desperation, the desire to know that I admire.

The book isn’t all serious, heavy Literature–there are some funny parts, touching chapters, and some sad happenings. Moby-Dick, like all great Literature, is a book about life–this time placed on a ship with a mad captain attempting the impossible. Doesn’t sound too far off the mark to me.

Twain said, “Literature is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read,” and he was right. Moby-Dick, however, will not disappoint the reader, and it rewards repeated readings. It’s an amazing accomplishment of English literature.

If you do decide to read it, I highly recommend the Arion Press edition; it has beautiful woodcut pictures throughout (who doesn’t like pictures?) and the font is larger for easier reading.


  1. “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

    This is high on my list of books to read once I’m done with school. I’ve seen the 1998 TV-movie starring Patrick Stewart, but I don’t remember it being very good. I’m sure I’ll see it again after I read the book.

  2. I too am very fond of the “lee shore” chapter. it takes three minutes to read. i suggest reading it out loud.

    it is hard to describe just what is so special about it. the words and phrases pound at the reader, maybe like gusts of stormy wind in a squall. i suppose it puts into stirring and poetic words the impulse for danger and adventure. maybe it encapsulates the entire (very big) book.

    the writer is in awe of bulkington’s relentless aversion to life on the land. bulkington is heroic because he rejects ‘warm blankets’ – amazing!

    i recommend both the gregory peck and the patrick stewart movie versions of moby dick.

    and one odd little irony: in the stewart version, there is a fleeting moment where you meet a bulkington character, who doesn’t get much attention in the book than the ‘six-inch epitaph’ chapter.’

    but guess what he is doing? his ship is in dock, and he is sneaking off of it at night! sneaking away to land. and that’s all you see of bulkington, such a hero in the book who would seemingly do anything just to stay on the water and brave its untethered dangers.

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