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Moby Dick Monday: First Impressions

December 21, 2009

It’s shameful; this is the sixth week of Moby Dick Monday, a read-a-long I signed up for, and the first time I’m posting about it! I’ve been worried about starting this one, then frantically scrambling to finish it by December 31st (because I strongly prefer having all books finished by midnight). But on Saturday night, I thought I’d go ahead and check out my copy to see how many pages/day I’d have to read to finish it. And I was in for a surprise:

Moby Dick is much shorter than I thought it was! My copy is 443 pages (granted, the type’s small and the pages are large), and I had a heart attack thinking it was abridged. But the copyright page said the text was unabridged. I still didn’t believe that, so I compared some of my chapters to ones on Project Gutenberg, and they seemed complete. So finally I went to Amazon and looked at the table of contents for those huge editions I’d been seeing (600-800 pages) and realised that much of those were literary criticism and explanatory notes! In the Oxford World Classics edition, the text itself is about 500 pages. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book’s rather short.

So, there are 136 chapters plus an epilogue, and to avoid the page numbering issues, I’ll be talking about this based on chapter. :) I finished chapter 55 last night (which puts me close to halfway through the total pages), and I’m seriously loving this story. Ishmael, the narrator, is just great; he’s got a sense of humour as well as a streak of nerdiness about a mile wide. Along with telling the story normally, he sometimes plays with forms (one chapter was styled as a play) and he often pauses to go into a digression on whales themselves. With funny footnotes! :) And he’s got a life philosophy that I can’t help but agree with:

But I am one of those that never take on about princely fortunes, and am quite content if the world is ready to board and lodge me.

That, and his spirit of adventure and desire to see the world makes me feel we’d be friends!

This is my first experience with Meville, and I think he’s a wonderful novelist. The story flows well, and the characters are all quite singular and well-drawn. Here’s the introduction to Starbuck, the first mate of Ishmael’s ship (the Pequod):

He was a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast, seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked biscuit. Transported to the Indies, his live blood would not spoil like bottled ale. He must have been born in some time of general drought and famine, or upon one of those fast days for which his state is famous. Only some thirty arid summers had he seen; those summers had dried up all his physical superfluousness. But this, his thinness, so to speak, seemed no more the token of wasting anxieties and cares, than it seemed the indication of any bodily blight. It was merely the condensation of the man. He was by no means ill-looking; quite the contrary. His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed prepared to endure for long ages to come, and to endure always. as now; for be it Polar snow or torrid sun, like a patent chronometer, his interior vitality was warranted to do well in all climates.

There are so many things I love about this passage: Melville’s diction, the completely unexpected descriptions that are both fanciful and precise, the detailed image I have of Starbuck at the end of it…I think it’s simply marvelous!

Captain Ahab himself is an old-fashioned kind of man, and his speech reflects that. Here’s him talking about Moby Dick:

“Aye Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye.” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lumber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chse him round GOod Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Malestrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.”

Now, if the whole book was written in that kind of dialect, I’d be dying inside. But since it’s only Captain Ahab, and since he doesn’t actually talk very often, I just revel it in. I think Melville has quite the ear; I can hear Ahab inside my head when I read that, and his voice sounds so different from Ishmael’s. And there’s those unexpected comparisons again; “heart-stricken moose”?! But it totally works. :) And ‘dismasted’ might be one of my new favourite words! (Although I don’t think it’s a ‘real’ one, but isn’t it perfect for a sea captain describing the loss of a leg?!)

Now, even though I’m really loving the book, I do think I need to address one more thing. Meville Moby Dick, being of the nineteenth century, was contains an occasional racist passage (edited based on some insightful comments). Here are the two descriptions in the book that made me cringe:

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. And besides all this, there was a certain lofty bearing about the Pagan, which even his uncouthness could not altogether maim.

and

The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black torwsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexino peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; -a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting room they supposed to be elsewhere.

Pretty awful, right? And I’m not even going to attempt to excuse it. But all the same, I’m surprised by how Queequeg, the man being described in the first passage, has become a fully-fledged character. Ishmael and he, after a rocky start, end up bosom buddies. And at other moments, Melville shows quite a bit more self-awareness on race issues than I would expect. And after Ishmael laughs at some story of Queequeg’s, in which Quuequeg didn’t understand how to use a wheelbarrow and thus ended up carrying it on his shoulder, they have this exchange:

“Why,” said I, “Queequeg, you might have known better than that, one would think. Didn’t the people laugh?”
Upon this, he told me another story. The people of his island of Kokovoko, it seems, at their wedding feasts express the fragrant water of young cocoanuts into a large stained calabash like a punchbowl; and this punchbowl always forms the great central ornament on the braided mat where the feast is held. Now a certain grand merchant ship once touched at Kokovoko, and its commander-from all accounts, a very stately punctilious gentleman, at least for a sea captain-this commander was invited to the wedding feast of Queequeg’s sister, a pretty young princess just turned of ten. Well; when all the wedding quests were assembled at the bride’s bamboo cottage, this Captain marches in, and being assigned the post of honor, placed himself over against the punchbowl, and between the High Priest and his majesty the King, Queequeg’s father. Grace being said, -for these people have their face as well as we-though Queequeg todl me that unlike us, who at such times look downwards at our platters, they, on the contrary, copying the ducks, glance upwards to the great Giver of all feasts-Grace, I say, being said, the High Priest opens the banquet by the immemorial ceremony of the island; that is, dipping his consecrated and consecrating fingesr into the bowl before the blessed beverage circulates. Seeing himself placed next the Priest, and noting the ceremony, and thinking himself-being Captain of a ship-as having plain precedence over a mere island King, especially in the King’s own house-the Captain coolly proceeds to wash his hands in the punchbowl;-taking it I suppose for a hunger fingerglass. “Now,” said Queequeg, “what you tink now? -Didn’t our people laugh?”

Interesting dichotomy, right?

Well, somehow this post has become much longer than I expected it to be! So I’ll wrap it up for now. But I think Moby Dick‘s reputation is undeserved, and if the rest of the book is as good as this part has been, I’ll be searching out more Melville in the future!

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34 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2009 11:31 am

    I am so glad that you are enjoying it. I think many of us felt that it would be like torture to get through, but it’s been quite pleasant thus far, and with you being so far ahead of us now, I am glad that you are STILL liking it. Bodes well for the rest of us. I am so glad you can join us.

    • December 22, 2009 2:20 am

      I’m glad you hosted it! I needed some kind of impetus to pick it up. :)

  2. December 21, 2009 12:32 pm

    I can’t believe you’re already halfway through!

  3. December 21, 2009 1:23 pm

    Ashamed to say that I (marine biologist and marine mammal scientist that I am) have still not read Moby Dick. I tried once or twice, but it was obviously not the right time…maybe next year. I’m a lot more motivated after reading this post, thanks!

    • December 22, 2009 2:21 am

      Well, Ishmael firmly believes that whales are fish, despite acknowledging their warm bloodedness. So I don’t think it’s TOO shaming for a marine biologist! lol You might try the audio version, if you enjoy them!

  4. December 21, 2009 1:45 pm

    This is kind of hilarious because from what I can tell, most people don’t like this book much. Or at least they didn’t at the beginning.

    I still haven’t read this one. I have Ahab’s Wife on my shelf to read, too…

    But 2010 is going to be my comeback year for classics! I read NONE this year. Yikes.

    • December 22, 2009 2:22 am

      I know right?! Perhaps I’m just a freak. ;)

      Jason and I are reading Ahab’s Wife next year, after we finish MD! You should join us!

  5. December 21, 2009 2:22 pm

    You have me convinced! I had shied away from Moby Dick (like so many other readers) thinking it was tedious and that I wouldn’t enjoy it. But you have convinced me that I must rethink this. It’s been on my list to read since forever!

  6. December 21, 2009 3:49 pm

    Can we infer an author is racist because the narrator of one of their books describes characters in a way that is racist? In Kenzaburo Oe’s Prize Stock about an African American WWII pilot kept as a prisoner in a rural town in Japan after being captured by rural Japanese the descriptions of the man given by the narrator, a teenage Japanese, are very racist-can we jump from this to Kenzaburo Oe being a racist? Very perceptive review but I think it is very unfair to label the author of Moby Dick as racist because of the descriptions of characters in his books. You pointed out that at first Quuequeg is seen by Ishmael as simply a savage but as he gets to know him he becomes a whole person. Maybe the apparent racism of the narrative is really another way of bring forth the theme that it is our lack of knowledge of the other that causes our terror of them-just as Captain Ahab prides himself for his knowledge of the whale put knows it only as a prey animal

    I do not think the work is racist at all and if anything it is a direct attack on the predjudices of the 19th century and man in general

    • December 22, 2009 2:24 am

      Hmmm…I can see where you’re going w/ Queequeg. But I find it more difficult to argue that Meville’s description of the Filipinos is anything but racist. And I’ve read further since posting, and I’ve come across a couple more physical statements that definitely contain a ‘whiter=more attractive and civilised’ assumption to them. Since, unlike Queequeg, these bits aren’t brought up again later, it doesn’t feel like Melville wrote them in order to disagree with them. I’ll see how I feel when I finish the book!

  7. December 21, 2009 5:09 pm

    My only experience with Moby Dick was 11th grade honors English and I remember totally despising the excerpts we were given, and then being told (by our teacher no less) that the rest of the book was terrible and not worth reading! So I’ve never touched it again. The passages you quoted aren’t too bad, though! I can’t say I’ll jump to read it right away, but you’ve made me reconsider my firm opinion.

    I am regularly surprised by how much I now enjoy classics I hated in the past; I think I can thank my English major for it!

    • December 22, 2009 2:25 am

      Evil teacher! ;) I don’t think this book would WORK in excerpts; you wouldn’t get the same feel for Ishmael and his voice, and I think it would feel disjointed.

  8. December 21, 2009 7:39 pm

    My understanding is that Melville was not a racist at all; on the contrary he was trying to bring the readers into an awareness of the folly of judging by color. Certainly we could see this from the initial encounter of Ishmael and Queequeg. I think you will see more of this as the novel progresses!

    • December 22, 2009 2:25 am

      I don’t know anything about Melville himself. So I’m going to edit my post a little. ;) But also see my reply to Mel U…I think there’s a bit of latent racism in the book.

  9. December 21, 2009 11:53 pm

    I confess, I kind of hit the high points with Moby Dick to get through in my The American Novel class. So I think I’d like to try reading this again and I could watch one of the movie versions as a bonus/reward.

    This is Bybee. Really. Not Tuffi. Honest.

    • December 22, 2009 2:26 am

      Tuffi has taken over your brain!!! Come back Bybee, come back! ;)

      I don’t think I’d enjoy a film version, because my sensitive vegetarian animal-rights soul is having a hard time READING about whale hunting. Much less SEEING it!

  10. December 22, 2009 8:32 am

    Oh gosh, good for you! There were parts of Moby Dick that I enjoyed so much, but all the whaling stuff made me want to scoop my eyes out with a spoon. Still, I remember several very excellent lines – one bit where Ahab is standing “with a crucifixion in his face” – things that make me want to read other Melville stories. I hear good things about The Confidence Man…

    • December 22, 2009 1:48 pm

      LOL That is the grossest mental image Jenny! I don’t know anything about Melville’s other work; maybe I’ll start with The Confidence Man next!

      • December 23, 2009 7:22 am

        Hahaha, it’s what I always think of when early American literature is making me unhappy – in middle school, we went to see a production where they did little plays of Mark Twain’s jumping frog story, “The Monkey’s Paw”, and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the protagonist did that to the old man. MANY NIGHTMARES LATER, I still associate that image with American lit.

        Have you ever read “Bartleby the Scrivener”? It’s a longish short story by Melville and I just love it. It’s so funny in one way, and quite melancholy as well.

    • December 25, 2009 12:06 am

      I haven’t read Bartleby, but I LOVE that title! :) Um, I totally understand why that play would give you nightmares. Some of the Poe I read when I was younger still gives me nightmares-mainly being bricked up in a wall! *shudder*

  11. December 22, 2009 1:28 pm

    I’ll bet you never expect to love this one! I had no idea it was not even 500 pages. I always think of it being in the 800-900 page range.

    • December 22, 2009 1:49 pm

      I totally didn’t expect to love it! :) I think most editions are in the 500-600 range, but yeah, I’ve always thought of it as a huge book. When really, it’s not!

  12. December 22, 2009 8:57 pm

    I read this for an American lit class in college. I think I had a week and a half and I was delightfully surprised to find that I too loved it! I had been dreading it all semester. My mom, an English teacher, told me to skip the whale blubber chapters but I even enjoyed those. Now I need to reread it to remember just WHY I loved it so much. I’m glad you are enjoying it too!

    • December 25, 2009 12:04 am

      We have such similar reading taste! :) I’m enjoying the more science-y chapters too. :D

  13. December 22, 2009 10:31 pm

    The Confidence Man is good; you should run right out and avoid Pierre.

  14. December 29, 2009 12:10 pm

    I’m was so glad to read that you are enjoying this whale of a book! Moby Dick has always intimidated me, but you’ve inspired me to move it up just a tad in the TBR stack.

  15. January 18, 2010 6:52 pm

    Heehee Eva. I find it so cute that you find the reference to Filipinos offensive when I didn’t, and me being Filipino. And then the other quote about Queequeg I even found to be completely the opposite of being racist. If we were to look at the time this was written, Melville’s saying that “You cannot hide the soul” about a “savage” would almost be sacrilege. But anyway, enough has been said in the comments about that.

    So I just started reading this weekend and feel the same as you.. am loving it so much. Funny and illuminating at the same time. This is my most favourite read of the year so far. Just love everything about it. I’m glad that I have a whole book of Melville’s short stories waiting on the tbr.. and Bartleby the Scrivener is in it.. are you jealous?? :D

    • January 19, 2010 2:11 am

      lol! I think sometimes it’s hard for me as a white girl to talk about race issues…just as I imagine it’s much more difficult for men to talk about gender issues. I suppose I bring those descriptions up, because it seems like racial stuff is usually glossed over on book blogs, and I think it’s important that we discuss these things. You know?

      I *would* be jealous of your other Melville BUT I just put that same book (I bet) on hold at my library! Haha! ;)

  16. January 18, 2010 7:14 pm

    On Filipinos and Moby Dick-Captain Ahab had the highest regard for Filipinos as whalers-they were his hand picked crew and are depicted as way superior in skill to the other seamen-Filipinos-normally called “Manila Men” at the time-were greatly valued as crew members on whaling and other ships (funny same thing is true today!)-The Filipinos were very dedicated to Captain Ahab and his fearsome qualities maybe be seen as inhering in them-

    • January 19, 2010 2:12 am

      Hi Mel! Thanks for letting me know that. :) Like I said to Meghan, I don’t think Melville’s depictions of non-white characters are lacking so much as the descriptions. Does that make sense?

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