Literature Commentary: Moby-Dick

31 Aug

(Originally published March 1, 2009)

I started reading “Moby-Dick” back in 8th grade during a trip to my grandparents’ house in St. Louis. At the time, this classic work by Herman Melville bored me out of my mind. Fortunately, I’ve developed more of an appetite for classic literature since then…and I thought it might be time to try “Moby-Dick” again.

The verdict? Mixed.

First off, it should be noted that this is a *long* book. Don’t get me wrong – I like a good long novel. But I’m not just talking about the number of pages – this book is a slow read. It just doesn’t have the lyricism of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo.

Second, “Moby-Dick” contains page after page of extraneous, irrelevant information – including scientifically unsound descriptions of whales and porpoises. This makes for very, very tedious reading in between the few moments of literary brilliance. Personally, I think Melville could have used a better editor.

Third, “Moby-Dick” contains subtle universalist and homosexual undertones. In fact, the relationship between the narrator, Ishmael, and the harpooner Queequeg was originally deemed unsuitable for American audiences – and much of this material was removed from the first American edition. Ishmael also expresses a belief that good behavior and upright living lead to salvation from God.

All things considered, however, “Moby-Dick” is probably still worth reading. Not only is it a classic of American literature, but it also expresses some very interesting ideas about the relationship between man and God. The protagonist, Captain Ahab, is obsessed with hunting and killing the great white whale Moby Dick, the beast responsible for the loss of his leg. Throughout the book, Ahab rants against Moby Dick, attributing to the whale attributes far greater than those of any witless beast. And Moby Dick undeniably demonstrates an extraordinary, almost preternatural intelligence, as well as a remarkable ability to survive the harpoons of his attackers.

Effectively, Ahab’s struggle against Moby Dick is a metaphor for man’s opposition to God. Ahab even goes so far as to temper three harpoons in human blood, declaring that they will be the blades to end the white whale’s life. He “baptizes” them in the name of the devil, and raves that he would “strike the sun if it insulted him.”

The futility of such a quest is ultimately demonstrated through the destruction of Ahab’s ship, his death in a freak accident, and Moby Dick’s escape. Alone of all the crew, the narrator survives to tell the tale – and a cautionary tale it is. The moral of “Moby-Dick” could be summed up in one sentence: rebellion against God leads only to destruction.

So is “Moby-Dick” worth reading? Along with “The Great Gatsby”, this book has long been the bane of high school literature students. This animadversion is somewhat justified, considering the lengthy sections of tedious descriptions and the poorly structured prose. However, beneath the book’s dry exterior is an intriguing, reasonably creative moral lesson that may make it worth your while.

Worth reading for literature buffs, but bogged down by page after page of dull exposition.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Classic


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