If you ask a friend what the greatest book of all-time is, you may hear — sarcastically or earnestly — Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Herman Melville’s classic 600-plus-page whaling opus. It’s almost as comical as it is canonical: Citing the obvious choice as the best is never fun or unique. Many major publications have written their own articles, touting Melville’s work as a premier piece of literature — and almost certainly the best work of American fiction. Frankly, they are all right. Moby-Dick turns 165 later this year — it was first published without fanfare in London on October 18, 1851. As we begin our New Year’s Resolutions for this year, make this yours: (Finally) Read Moby-Dick by the time it turns 165.
Whaling is, of course, the focus of Moby-Dick, but it is simply a metaphor for existence. The novel begins, quite famously, with the first-person narrator’s introduction, “Call me Ishmael.” Shortly later in the paragraph, in a far less quoted segment, he continues:
“…whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and ever 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.”
From the onset, amid Melville’s miraculously poetic language, Moby-Dick is a tale of existentialism. Ishmael knows nowhere else to turn, so he chooses to essentially disappear out on the waters — existing to only the handful of men making up the as-yet-undetermined ship’s crew. Despite his grave ramblings, however, Ishmael never abandons hope. He very well may die while whaling, and if he survives, there may be little reward, but he is still glad to continue living, willing to subject himself to danger in search of meaning, even if there is none to be found.
It is that considered, almost relieved acceptance of meaningless that makes Moby-Dick the greatest book ever written. For without dogmatic guidance, the individual is free to live as she pleases, happy to take life as it comes.
In addition to its thematic success, Moby-Dick is a marvelously written book. There are entire passages with words I’d never read before — although it’s also not necessary to have a thesaurus at hand to understand. As with the above hat-knocking-off passage, however, Melville’s prose is actually funny — and not in the way that your English professor thinks things are funny. From the same first chapter, “Loomings,” Melville writes further of Ishmael’s personal justifications for going to sea. Among them is that Ishmael is not a rich man. In fact, he’s quite cheap.
“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,—what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter haven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”
The contrast between such a well-crafted Biblical allusion and Ishmael’s crass unwillingness to pay for an experience is astounding. When read slowly — as I’m doing once again without the pressures of university assignments — these moments pop off the page. With such a long novel, there almost has to be particular moments of genius to keep the reader’s attention.
Moby-Dick really comes into form, of course, once Ishmael is out on the waters on Captain Ahab’s doomed Pequod. (It is hardly a spoiler to say that the crew does not meet a kindly end, given that a “while whale” is the term for an unattainable obsession, thanks to Melville.) In its latter pages, there are occasionally maligned chapters strictly about whaling and whale anatomy — “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View,” for instance. And while, “vivid descriptions of a sea mammal” does not sound like a key component of culture-defining literature, those moments have their own relaxing charm. If nothing else, it is the most beautiful science textbook there is, with lines like, “But the ear of the whale is full as curious as the eye.” Melville also takes the opportunity to use such an otherwise mundane topic for even more metaphor:
“It may be but an idle whim, but it has always seemed to me, that the extraordinary vacillations of movement displayed by some whales when beset by three or four boats; the timidity and liability to queer frights, so common to such whales; I think that all this indirectly proceeds from the helpless perplexity of volition, in which their divided and diametrically opposite powers of vision must involve them.”
Essentially, whales are afraid when presented with the need to make a decision — in this case, avoiding being hunted. Sounds like how we human beings may behave at a critical crossroads.
The book closes with three days of “The Chase” after Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s long-sought-after white whale. What begins as adventurous eventually fizzles out into a futile exercise. It is an apt way for an otherwise epic book to end. It should come as no surprise that it would end with a relative whimper, yet it is not unsatisfying.
The last paragraph reads: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Despite Ahab’s failings, Ishmael is content with the voyage’s results. He has become part of an ancient history, simply living like many before him and as many will after. He does not need to attain anything, as Ahab so foolishly believes, to have accomplished.
There is a similar feeling in reading, and finishing, Moby-Dick. It is an intensely long book — even noted Melville-lover William Faulkner never reached such 135-chapter-lengths — so simply getting to the end is an accomplishment. There is also the satisfaction in finishing something that, as stated at the beginning, is widely regarded as an unquestionable classic. So simply getting to the end is an accomplishment. There is also the pleasure in finishing something that, as stated at the beginning, is widely regarded as an unquestionable.
Nevertheless, there is nothing to be truly attained with reading Moby-Dick. The world will not stop because you met your goal. Many have read it already. Many more will read it by choice or by force. Still, that does not detract from its joys. The experience comes from engagement. You feel for Ishmael. You feel like Ishmael. You’re alone when sitting with Moby-Dick. But you’re never lonely. With its range of emotions and themes that expand beyond the page, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is the greatest piece of literature ever written. Finish it before October 18, 2016.