Thursday, November 1, 2012

Moby Dick, a review

I was very curious about this novel, which is why I decided to take a semester on Melville. But I have to admit that what I envisioned before I read it was completely different than the actual work, in a pleasant way.  Melville, it turns out, is very relevant to today's literary market.

More relevant still--to me anyway--is the many lessons to be learned from his career. Melville started off a vast success with his first novel, Typee, and by the time he died was forgotten. His best known work, and the subject of this review, Moby Dick, helped to sink his career.

Here is a titanic work, whose power made authors like Faulkner wish they had written it, and it was poorly received. What happened 19th century folk? Were you blinded by your love of sensational urban fictions, your gothic and sentimental romances, those dime novels that sold well? The romantic in me wants to believe that in your era there were more pertinent issues, like trying to abolish slavery, to care about the experimental work of a once popular author--I mean Uncle Tom's Cabin did sell well in that same period. 

Needless to say, Melville did not take the book's failure well.

This man knew that there are constraints on the creative powers of writers. He was free of the Elizabethan constraints that festered Shakespeare; the Declaration of Independence helped American authors escape political censorship. But he had to contend with a different form of constraint: Supply and Demand.

Here, I won't be simple minded and say that Capitalism is the prime culprit; my belief is that human greed is at the heart of all of our social ailments and not a theory of economics. Supply and demand is the lifeblood of our society.

There was a demand in Melville's time for fiction that could be digested pleasurably, at one's leisure; so the romantic, the gothic, what we would call genre today, sold well. Melville had to bend his creative power to meet this demand. With a family to feed, it was inescapable. But Melville was too much an artist to do this right--in letters he showed frustration over wanting to write popular fiction, but being unable to. 

This constraint, of supply and demand, defeated him. He denounced most of his work as the type of labor one must do to earn money, just jobs to fill his belly and pipe.

And here I wonder what he might have written had he been financially stable--if his family's old wealth had been available to him. What Moby Dick might we be reading today? 

But these are the wistful thoughts of fools, those of us who long to know what was lost in the library at Alexandria. 



A sailor known only as Ishmael and a harpooner named Quequeg unknowingly join the mad quest of Captain Ahab to bring bloody vengeance to the white Sperm Whale known as Moby Dick.

Genre: Literary

Edition: Kindle app for ipad

What didn't work for me:

What worked for me:


I intentionally left the other two portions blank. It is silly to try to review this. Not since reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, has an author removed the floor from under me like this. 

Notice in the overview how the plot of seems simple, generic even. And it is. The novel moves this plot of revenge in a linear fashion. But there are other directions this story moves in and this is why Moby Dick is an ambitious gem. 

If I suppose that the vengeance plot moves in a linear direction, then I can also suppose that the other elements in the novel move in a non-linear direction, in different planes. The text of this book reaches out in multiple directions from the beginning, so that the end result is a three dimensional shape. 

A perfect novel of this sort would have all branches of its text reaching outwards in identical distances and the end result would be the ideal sphere. Moby Dick is not perfect, in part because of those constraints mentioned above (Melville did try to make this into a sea-faring adventure). It isn't quite that sphere.

But those odd elements, those moments of Shakespearean delight, the non-fiction information on whales, those portions of theater--all that seems to not belong in that linear plot of vengeance--they are the life of this enduring work. It is bold too. Not only does it dwell into homoerotic relationships long before the word homosexual came into popular usage, but its modes of storytelling helped define an American Literary identity. Who else experimented with form like Melville in the 19th Century? 

And the characters are memorable in their own way. Ishmael works as a character during those linear moments where a set of eyes is needed, and as a pair of meta-eyes when the story reaches out of the page with its beautiful observations--my favorite was the chapter on the Whiteness of the Whale and a close second was where he discusses the few laws that whalers have, the fast-fish and loose-fish laws. 

Captain Ahab, the tragic hero, draws you in as he does his crew. We are all Ahabs in a way, trying to control our destinies, unaware of the cruel truth: We're on rails and no matter how much we shout and wave our hands, there is no deviating from the course and its ultimate end, Death. 

There are many more characters to enjoy, the weakness of Starbuck, the practical simplicity of Stubb, Quequeg and his idol, Moby many and so unlike the stock characters of lesser fiction. They all have their trivial pursuits matched against the titanic nature of what Ahab wishes to accomplish, which is no less than to pummel the gods.

Here I can go on and on, but I'll stop with these last thoughts. Long after those best-selling, popular works of fiction have lost their many gray shades of splendor and been replaced by new faddish novels, Moby Dick will still hold its strength. 

And I predict that in the future, many decades from now, the works of some unknown Melville of OUR era will be discovered. Again, those who care about literature will wonder how his/her masterpiece could have gone ignored.