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Navigating Moby Dick

I finally decided to read Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel, Moby Dick and it’s been a leviathan struggle, as the author might have said. Perhaps it’s the long sentences that fill several Kindle screens. Perhaps it’s the liberal use of seafaring terms. When it comes to things nautical, I don’t know my aft from my elbow. Perhaps it’s the ever-shifting narrative forms, point-of view perspectives, or tangents Melville pursues. Whatever it is, Moby Dick has been a whale of a challenge and I’m only one-third of the way through the epic tale.

This isn’t to suggest this book doesn’t deserve its place as a classic of American literature. There are moments when Melville’s writing blows me away. Melville describes the tormented Captain Ahab as “a man divided, seared, and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him.” That’s powerful stuff. At other times, it reads like a whaling manual.

Melville does a lot of setting the scene for the epic battle between the whalers and Moby Dick. He devotes an entire chapter to the ominous nature of the color white. Another chapter outlines the three classifications of whales, reading at times like a zoology textbook. There is a chapter that describes the wealthy community (at the time) of New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Another chapter is written in playwright style. Captain Ahab, the character around whom the story revolves, doesn’t make his first appearance until Chapter 28.

The sentences are excruciating in their length. Consider this whale of a sentence that begins Chapter 45.The Affidavit:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affairs.

In case you’re counting, that sentence weighs in at 105 words. What would an agent say about that one? The reader must endure such prose because the book has so much to offer. At least that’s what I’ve read in various reviews. It tackles issues of immense import: religion and morality, social status, sin and redemption, and one of humankind’s fatal flaws: the desire for revenge. Consider lines like this: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue , if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Or this: “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

There are few novels that work on so many levels or have been subject to as much interpretation as Moby Dick. Some critics saw it as a commentary on slavery; others suggested Melville was attacking the mood of disillusionment in the middle of the 19th Century. Others viewed it is a critique on man’s vanity. One critic even suggested the mighty sperm whale represented the Catholic Church. Or, the story can be taken at face value as an epic tale of man against nature.

As for me, I will struggle on and reserve judgment until I reach the end.

What is your opinion of Moby Dick? Have you ever read a novel you had to struggle to finish? Was it worth it?



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