John Rainsford

Book Review: Moby Dick or The Whale

This article was posted on Thursday, 18th October 2012

As it's the 161st anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick, I've decided to republish the review I wrote of the book, a little over a year ago. In case it's not obvious from the review, I like this book a lot.

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

I like to intersperse some classic literature amongst the paperback novels I normally read. Moby Dick is a story that I have been familiar with all my life, I can still remember scenes from the old Gregory Peck movie. And there is always the odd reference to 'Call me Ishmael', the classic opening line from Moby Dick.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book- I was familiar with the story, but I didn't know how the novel would pan out. It instantly endeared itself to me with the opening page, which the above quote was taken from. The English is overly descriptive and very 'flowery' at times and I found myself having to read sections again, to fully comprehend what was said. I will probably have to read this again at some point to fully comprehend it, but I don't have a problem with that.

"...yet he [Queequeg] had a particular affection for his own harpoon, because it was of assured stuff, well tried in many a mortal combat, and deeply intimate with the hearts of whales."

There are a nice mix of characters throughout the book, even entire chapters dedicated to a character and allows them a soliloquy or two. This books reminds me very much of Shakespeare, almost as if it were destined for the stage. In the large volume that the book is, there was very little devoted to what Ishmael actually did- there were references to it here and there but a lot of the descriptions were as if he were a fly on the wall, not a man in the middle of a chase. At times you would forget that the book had a narrator.

"It was hardly to be doubted, that several vessels reported to have encountered, at such or such a time, or on such or such a meridian, a Sperm Whale of uncommon magnitude and malignity, which whale, after doing great mischief to his assailants, had completely escaped them; to some minds it was not an unfair presumption, I say that the whale in question must have been no other than Moby Dick."

A large chunk of the book was taken up with very detailed descriptions of elements of the whaling industry circa 1850. Although these do give a flavour of the era, at times they can be tedious and other times they veer back into the story and before you realise it, you are missing something relevant to the story. Not my favourite part of the book, but I do think it was still necessary, although it could've be edited back.

"Lashed round and round to the fish's back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon old Ahab. The harpoon dropped from his hand."

There are some great moments in the book, I can understand why it is such a classic. I am actually looking forward to reading it again, although I might get a copy of the book with a commentary, allowing further comprehension along the way.

Not the easiest book to read, it is quite slow in places and laden down with extra stuff, as mentioned above, but it is definitely worth the read, I highly recommend it. A pleasure to read.

"...his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it."

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