Moby Dick by Herman Melville

As I’m sure you already know, Moby Dick is widely regarded as one of the best pieces of American literature ever written. I love the classics and I also have a particular soft spot for American literature, so, of course, I was keen to read this book. Unfortunately, it was an experience I found very disappointing.

It starts out well enough, with the main character (Ishmael), narrating how he came to meet Captain Ahab and ultimately ended up joining him for a whaling voyage. This lasts for approximately the first fifth of the book and if the whole thing was written like this, I’d actually think it was an alright sort of book. Unfortunately, once their journey across the ocean began, my enjoyment of the book dropped dramatically.

The problem was that this is a really long book, but not very much happens while they travel across the sea. Chapters are filled with Herman Melville’s knowledge of whales and whaling and I’ll admit that occasionally I’d get to a bit that was kind of interesting, but the problem is that Melville’s knowledge of whales is not 100% accurate. This may be because I have the luxury of modern understanding, but a lot of stuff that he says is just wrong. Are whales mammals or fish? Practically everybody today knows that they are mammals… but Melville spends quite a lot of time talking about how they are fish and not mammals. Other times he just starts talking about non-whale related subjects and trying to make them whale-related, for example, arguing that the dragon in the story of St. George was actually a whale.

But, you know what, I love whales. They’re fascinating and beautiful creatures. If it was just a bunch of longwinded and inaccurate essays about them, I think I’d still have gotten a reasonable amount of enjoyment from the book. Probably the most frustrating thing of all was that he goes to great lengths to try and convince the reader that whaling is a very noble and respectable line of work. Whaling is cruel and barbaric and it almost caused whales to go extinct. This is something Melville would have been surprised by because one of his little essays is about how human beings could never over-hunt whales because there’s just so many of them. Melville himself was a whaler and at times he genuinely seemed to have forgotten he was writing this book in the first person as Ishmael and just slips into talking about his own life and opinions. It comes across quite badly at times.

That aside, there’s the character Queequeg, a Polynesian man. I believe that Melville probably included him in order to try and be progressive and I respect that intent, but it does come across as very patronising and not very well thought out. Ishmael and Queequeg do form a genuinely strong friendship and I liked this a lot. They sleep in the same bed with their arms wrapped around one another and even get married to each other in a tradition that comes from Queequeg’s people. I don’t know if we were supposed to read them as gay, or if this was more to highlight the strength of their friendship (I really like either option), but it’s interesting and refreshing to read. However, throughout the book, Queequeg is referred to a ‘cannibal’ and genuinely treated as someone of lower intelligence. At one point, Ishmael says something along the lines of “of course I respect Queequeg’s religion, even if to me it is the equivalent of an ant worshipping a mushroom.” which I think nicely sums up the patronising way that Queequeg is treated throughout the book, and I don’t think that this is an intentional way of highlighting the prejudice of the time either.

So, as with any book, there were bits that I liked and appreciated. But, gosh, this book felt like a huge chore. Sadly, there was more that I didn’t like than what I did like. It just reads like unstructured rambling a lot of time, with Melville trying to show off that he knows a lot about whales, (when really he actually doesn’t) and only the loosest story to tie it all together. I did kind of like how it ended, at very least, but I have to say, if I were editing it, I’d have cut out so much that I’d turn this really long novel into little more than a short story – it’s just so full of things that did nothing for me.

Rating: 4.4/10

Buy it here.

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