It should have come as no surprise to me that Moby-Dick, a novel famous for being boring, was… well, boring.
But it did, a little. I put too much faith, apparently, in the potential thrill of a madman’s swashbuckling adventures on the sea in pursuit of a living, breathing holy grail. And I indulged too far, it seems, in the comfort and relief of the novel’s opening chapters—which, if not exhilarating, are at least readable.
It all goes south from there. (Pun intended, obviously. I always intend my puns.) Around Chapter 32, Melville mutates without warning into a stodgy university professor, cloaked in dusty tweed, and dutifully steps up to the podium of our literary nightmares.
Because the thing is, when all is said and done, there’s very little plot in Moby-Dick. What little plot there is amounts to prepping for a whaling trip, embarking on said whaling trip, and then whaling intermittently (when the mood strikes, I guess) until lives and limbs are lost to Davy Jones’s locker. Between those chapters, Moby-Dick reads like a textbook—the only textbook, probably—about whaling.
There’s the chapter classifying the different types of whales. There’s the chapter(s) on whale anatomy. There’s the chapter about harpooning a whale, and the chapter about beheading it. There are lots of chapters about whale oil. Moby-Dick is more manual than novel, right down to the instructional guide on fashioning the skin of a whale’s penis into a jacket.
So, for the record, Melville isn’t fooling anyone with Moby-Dick. We know he was just looking for an opportunity to show off his exhaustive first-hand experience of “The Honor and Glory of Whaling” (the not-so-subtle title of Chapter 82). We know he spent years wringing out this epic and ambitious meditation on religion, revenge, insanity, and death in a bid for dignity and consequence.
And even if, by all accounts, he failed (Moby-Dick flopped like a whale onto shore), the attempt is admirable in hindsight. So if Melville owes us an apology for this confused and radically dull hot mess of a high school reading assignment, we owe him one, too—for ignoring the delicate genius it left in its wake.
A fun fact: Moby-Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Scarlet Letter fame. The two were neighbors and close friends in 1850s Massachusetts.
Another fun fact: Chapter 63 of Moby-Dick is called “The Crotch.” The term refers to an upright stick used to prop up harpoons.
Fun Fact the Third: Starbucks—yes, the ubiquitous coffee chain—is named for Moby-Dick‘s famous first mate, Starbuck…
That’s just about all Moby-Dick has to offer by way of fun. Not for nothing did Melville take cues from Shakespeare and the Bible—but I can’t help but wish he’d stopped undercutting his own adventure tale with lessons in whale law and whale art history.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
A lot of important people have a lot of important things to say about Moby-Dick.
I’m not one of them.
When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think I was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,—my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere.
A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing.
With much interest I sat watching him. Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face—at least to my taste—his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.
Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.