Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Land-Ho! Finished Moby-Dick!

Summing up Moby-Dick -- now that's a poser.

I started out worried that I would regret buying the book. I figured it might end up on my shelf, another half-hearted attempt on a classic, aborted half-way through. Far from it. As anyone who has been reading here lately knows, I enjoyed it immensely. Who could imagine a book that crams in so many vast riches? Gorgeous, rolling paragraphs of prose poetry. Revery-provoking philosophy. Swashbuckling action, as in the whale-hunts. Comedy, both ribald and subtle. A replete understanding of what a sophisticated world-view looked like in 1851. Allusions to and emulation of Greek tragedy and mythology. I'm sure I'm missing at least a couple more key elements. (I don't mention the cetology because I have to admit I wasn't all that captivated after the first 20 or so pages of crushing detail on the inside of a sperm whale's head, or a bone-by-bone description of his skeleton.)

I was also a tad disappointed by the ending. The action itself was outstanding and very, very impressive. It was fully in keeping with all the foreshadowing in the plot up to that point. But Melville's voice disappeared for me in the crucial final 20 pages -- the confrontation with Moby Dick. (Note: following Melville's lead, I only hyphenate the whale's name when citing the book title.) I know there are those who say the change in voice reflects the book's main sub-textual point: Man foolishly projects his ills on nature, but nature is impersonal (hence, the cold, clinical voice at the end), and will crush man's foolishness to dust every time. Great point, made very well during the book in a completely different style. The total and quite unsettling abandonment of that style at the end didn't underscore that point, it distracted me from it. But this is a niggle, really.

I had a lot of fun writing those farcical posts last week, and the one that took a hard look at the length of the book. But in the end, I have no complaints on that subject. This weekend, I chatted with my dad about MD. He is a life-long English Lit buff, majored in it in school and has devoured towering stacks of books every year since. I think he got it right when he said, "The book is as long as it is. If it were that long and nobody was reading it anymore, you might criticize him for it -- but everyone still raves about it. So, it's as long as it needs to be."

That was something I'm not sure I got across in my post on the length of the book. The length itself has a purpose and an integrity, as my father was intimating. It lulls you, it befriends you; it tells you, by its very nature, "Sit back and relax: I'm going to immerse you in a new world, and spin you one whopper of a yarn."

I had the time and the patience this month to give in to such a lovely invitation. I sure am glad I did.


El Cabrero said...

And I alone survived...

Congratulations for reading it. But the thing to remember is that it gets better with each visit.

Here's a downer...whatever else you read for the rest of your life--it won't get much better than this.

emily said...

I can't help but leave the link to this news article that appeared yesterday, for I know that everything in the past month has connected to Moby Dick. It seems a timely commentary to the conclusion of your reading.

19th-Century Weapon Found in Whale

Harry said...


I much appreciate the encouragement to return to MD, something that's much on my mind. As to your second point, poignant evidence was provided today, as I ventured to the library to find my next read. It took me three hours to find a piece of fiction I was interested in, and not nearly as much as MD. I think they should publish a warning on the MD dust jacket about the post-novel let-down. I'm actually feeling draggy today! Curse your artistic soul, Melville! ;->

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I'm 225 pages in, and my niggles have entirely been ones of plot logic:

If the narrator (Ishmael) has never shipped out on a whaling boat before, how can he claim to have seen so many whale adventures first-hand?

How could those tiger-yellow devils have been apparent only through a chance cough in the night, but were never heard to move around down there or talk otherwise?

If Ahab only got his peg-leg after returning from last voyage, why is the Pequod's deck already scarred with peg-marks during his first few days out of his cabin?

The last two points can be explained away through the flexibility of the plot -- time seems as loose as Queequeg's sword-mat -- but the first...well, maybe I should read the rest.

And yes, I'm loving it.