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Moby Dick Monday: I’ve Conquered the White Whale!

January 11, 2010

Well, I suppose it might be more accurate to say I’ve befriended the white whale, all thanks to Ti’s read-a-long. Because I really did love Moby Dick, and I fully intend to read more of Melville in the future. I’ve already discussed the first half of the book, so in this post, I’ll focus more on the latter half. Also, while I loved the book, I think I’ve already told you why (it’s hilarious, I love seafaring stories, the characters are unforgettable). So I’m going to spend most of this post on various passages that I marked while I was reading. I do provide a summary paragraph at the end, though. ;)

My vegetarian soul quailed when it reached the chapter “Stubb Kills a Whale.” But I think Melville’s descriptions are perfect; he doesn’t shy away from the grotesqueness of the act, and it really feels like he’s giving the whales their due. Almost like a wake-up call, so people know what has to happen for them to have their precious oil lamps.

The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men. And all the while, jet after jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale…And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red white, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!

It’s interesting, while he first refers to the whale as a ‘monster,’ to be this death scene could have easily been describing a man dying in battle (with the obvious exception of the spout-hole). Melville humanised the whale, and while I think nowadays most Westerners have a lot of sympathy with whales (unlike, say, tuna, but that’s a discussion for another day), at the time of Moby Dick I don’t think that was the case. I think if the whale’s death scene had been more casual, if the whale had been treated as an object merely containing oil, I would have stopped reading. As it was, I identified with the horror that really comes through in that passage.

While Melville’s ecological reasoning is suspect, which we all know now from living in an age that knows about endangerment and extinction, I thought this paragraph about the whale was particularly majestic and beautiful:

Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood, he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.

Last time, I explored the racist passages that had cropped up so far, and some people left comments arguing that Melville himself wasn’t racist, it’s just Ishmael. I think that Melville’s development of Queequeg supports that argument (although he’s not nearly as much in the book later), but there are still moments when Melville’s descriptive writing falls back on stereotypes (I shared a passage of that in my last post). And I’m not sure how I feel about Melville’s depictions of the (black) cook’s speech (he’s yelling at the sharks, who have gathered around the whale carcass to feast while the crew butchers it):

“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred’ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don’t be tearin’ de blubber out your nighbour’s mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o’you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness ob de mout is not to swallar wid, but to bite off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can’t get into de srouge to help demselves.”

On the one hand, Melville has an incredible ear for dialect, and he has other characters speak in various dialects (most notably, Captain Ahab). I can immediately ‘hear’ this voice inside my head. It’s also rather hilarious, a sailor telling the sharks to behave like Christians, so full points for humour. But at the same time, the cook’s the only black character portrayed, and he’s definitely a humourous foil, which makes me cringe and think of things like ‘black face’ and vaudeville. I don’t know. Do y’all have any opinions on that?

Here’s another little description, almost throw-away, that seems to indicate Melville views the races as more different from each other than similar (but since Ishmael is our narrator, could it all just be him? But why?):

But more suprising is to know, as has been proven by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer.

And then there’s Pip. Let me introduce you to him:

In outer aspects, Pip and Dough-Boy made a match, like a black pony and a white one, of equal developments, though of dissimilar color, driven in one eccentric span. But while hapless Dough-Boy was by nature dull and torpid in his intellects, Pop, though over tender-hearted, was at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe, which ever enjoy all holidays and fesitivities with finer, freer relish than any other race. For blacks, the year’s calendar should show naught but three hundred and sixty-five Fourth of Julys and New Year’s days.

It seems to me that in the book, while the quirks and personality traits of the white characters are treated as arising from their individual natures, the quirks and traits of the non-white characters are treated as arising from their race. Which, while not the most evil form of racism, still strikes me as racist. But I’m definitely curious about thoughts y’all have too.

One of my favourite things about the book are Melville’s beautiful, evocative, baroque descriptions. Here’s a wonderful example:

Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long, slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod’s gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place; where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings an queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblying leaps with light and heat.

In the end, I think I loved Moby Dick because it took me away to a different world, a full-fleshed out one that I could live in. Between Ishmael’s scholarly passages giving me a glimpse into nineteenth century science, all of the detailed explanations of what whaling ships actually did, and the more personalised portraits of Captain Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Queequeg, and more, I felt like I was right there on the ship with them. It’s funny; the White Whale is so built up in the book, that I found the immediate ending to be a bit of a let-down. But even a rather abrupt ending couldn’t ruin this experience for me, and Moby Dick is now on my mental list of ‘books to reread one day.’ I can understand why other people struggle with this one, but it was simply perfect for my reading experience. Its nerdy yet adventurous narrator, lush prose, and a willingness to look at thought-provoking issues (mainly animals and race) made Moby Dick a splendid read.

60 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 1:17 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it and I think you did a fabulous job summarizing the last half. I don’t think I could do just two posts. The details get lost in my brain as I am reading it, mostly because of all of the distractions while trying to read it (kids, hub, the dog that keeps barking in the background). It’s good that I am reading it in small chunks.

    You get a huge pat on the back!! What an accomplishment!

    • January 12, 2010 8:52 pm

      Thanks Ti! Not having any responsibilities definitely makes my reading more focused. ;)

  2. January 11, 2010 2:03 pm

    I think you might enjoy Leviathan by Philip Hoare. It can be somewhat contradictory, overblown with florid prose but it captures the beauty of those majestic creatures of the deep. Not so much as a dry academic text on whales but one man’s love letter to them, delving into the image of the whale in art and science (he quotes from Moby Dick). It’s good.

  3. January 11, 2010 2:17 pm

    I think Ishmael is rather sympathetic to the whales – or at least a part of him is. When they went after that old, crippled whale it was heart-breaking, in part because Ishmael portrayed it in that way.

    It’s funny, regarding the confrontation between Stubb and the cook, I thought the cook was shown as the more sympathetic character. Stubb forced him, after all, to “preach” to the sharks, and came off, in my opinion, very badly (Stubb that is) what with his hectoring and mistreatment of the cook. The cook, on the other hand, got in all the sarcasm he could but with a sense of humor and the need to placate Stubb. The cook may have been “free” but the way in which pre-emancipation blacks were “free” still left them in a very precarious position.

    Similarly, I thought Pip sounded (slightly) better than the Dough-boy, who is written as a total idiot.

    Even when Stubb and Flask are speculating whether Fedallah is actually “the devil,” I think the former two come off sounding ridiculously stupid (although Fedallah doesn’t get that good of press either)!

    I’m not saying Melville probably didn’t share the racist notions of his times even for an abolitionist (and even Lincoln shared these) but I think he did a nice balancing act, overall.

    And I also like the way he gave the pros and cons of whale killing, which was probably even more enlightened for the time than being a non racist!

    • January 12, 2010 8:57 pm

      I agree: I think Ishmael is definitely sympathetic to the whales, and that’s a large part of why I loved the book.

      I also found the cook more sympathetic than Stubb, but I wonder how much of that is from myself being a 21st century liberal reader. Would Melville’s original audience have read it the same way? I don’t know. And Pip definitely came off as better than Dough-boy, which is why I included him in the post!

      If the book felt overwhelmingly racist, I wouldn’t have liked it. I think my posts make the issue sound like a bigger deal to me than it was in my reading, just because I don’t want to write about too much, so I have to pick my topics. But at the same time, I think it’s important to note the sketchy passages, rather than just glass over them. I think it’s difficult, as a white reader, to really be able to tell if I’m being oversensitive to the racist bits or not, you know?

      • January 12, 2010 9:23 pm

        You make such a good point, that we’re reading it as 21st century readers. So I’m probably imputing more “good” into his attitudes because I *want* to!!! Sometimes I totally forget to put myself back into the time of the audience. Great call on your part!!! :–)

  4. January 11, 2010 2:30 pm

    I have always wanted to read this! And I too am a huge sea faring book kinda gal. Great review!

    • January 12, 2010 8:57 pm

      Seafaring books are the best, right? I have a HUGE crush on Captain Horatio Hornblower. :D

  5. January 11, 2010 2:36 pm

    I am glad to hear you enjoyed it. It is not one I have ever considered reading, but I know I have it in the garage, so may be I will search it out.

    • January 12, 2010 8:58 pm

      I think I’m in the minority, but you should definitely give it a chance! You might enjoy it. :)

  6. January 11, 2010 2:46 pm

    Do you think that the reason why Moby Dick endures as a classic is because of the way it explores animals and race, or is there more to it? I know you enjoyed the book, but as someone who’s never read it, I find myself wondering why it has endured. Is it because it’s just a good old fashioned yarn that’s fun to read (for some), or is there more to it than that?

    • January 12, 2010 9:01 pm

      Hmmm….I think it’s endured because of its characters. I mean, even before I’d read the book, I knew who Ishmael and Ahab and Starbuck were. And there’s something elemental about the story: it’s got that whole hero journey/grail quest thing going on that I think resonates with people. But that’s a really good question! I don’t have any formal literary training though, so I can’t answer it from a more big-picture point of view.

  7. January 11, 2010 2:51 pm

    It is hilarious to juxtapose your response to this book with those presented at Fizzy Thoughts. SO different :-D

    • January 12, 2010 9:01 pm

      I know! lol But not really-we both agree that Melville is super-verbose. It just drives Jill insane and delights me. hehe

  8. January 11, 2010 3:48 pm


    Granted, I have not read Moby Dick but hilarity is not a word I would connect with the book. You’ve got me intrigued!

    I don’t know if you’ve read it, but if not, I highly recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. It’s a nonfiction account of the whaling expedition which partly inspired Moby Dick.

    • January 12, 2010 9:02 pm

      Thanks Lesley! I found a lot of humour in the book, but I’m also a big nerd, so my definition of humour might be different than yours. ;) Thanks for the rec-I haven’t heard of that book before, but I hope my library has it!

  9. January 11, 2010 5:36 pm

    Thanks to MotherReader’s comment challenge, I’ve been finding myself saying two things quite often: I need to read that book, and I need to re-read that book.

    Moby Dick qualifies as the latter.

    Yet one more book to put on my list for the year — thank you for this insight into it. I’ll be sure to come back and read again once the White Whale is fresh in my mind! :)

  10. January 11, 2010 6:52 pm

    I read only sections of Moby Dick during high school, and it was a painful experience. But I enjoyed Bartleby, and I have gone back to it multiple times.

    • January 12, 2010 9:03 pm

      I don’t think I would have appreciated MD in high school at all! :) Maybe I’ll read Bartleby for my next Melville though!

  11. January 11, 2010 8:09 pm

    I think you loved it enough for both of us, which is good, because it’s officially on the list of things I will NEVER accomplish.

    • January 12, 2010 9:03 pm

      LOL That’s how I feel about James Joyce.

  12. January 11, 2010 9:17 pm

    Wonderful Eva! I am not quite half way through now and enjoying it immensely. I find the descriptive language wonderful, many of the scenes and much of the dialogue very funny.

    I can not say if it is racist, sometimes I think Melville is being sarcastic and scathing towards his own culture. I think he understood the devastation caused by whaling and the greed behind the industry, but I could be wrong. I would like to find out more about him, his beliefs and politics, and plan on reading more of his work in the future.

    • January 12, 2010 9:04 pm

      I agree; I think Melville is often being sarcastic (kind of like Dickens, now that I’m reading Oliver Twist). But then sometimes, I don’t see what the sarcastic point of a statement would be. So tricky to tell!

  13. January 11, 2010 10:58 pm

    So I don’t know how the HELL you managed to do it…seriously, you should be extremely proud of yourself, but you have me sort of wanting to read Moby Dick right now Eva….I’m a little shocked right now…

    • January 12, 2010 9:04 pm

      I AM proud of myself! Embrace the classics Chris! Walk towards the light! ;)

  14. January 11, 2010 11:32 pm

    Oh my, you’re fast, I’m taking it slower to enjoy every word. I too would like to write more than one or two ‘reviews’ of te story. There is a great deal of humour, especially in what Ishmael says or how he reacts, I love that. That’s a beautiful passage where he actually recognizes the whale’s place on the earth. I haven’t come to the racist bits yet. I do remind myself that it was 1851 and seafarers are often an uneducated if well-travelled lot. You make a lot of interesting points. My first post is up:

    • January 12, 2010 9:06 pm

      I am a savour-er. :) But I have a lot of reading time; that’s how I read quickly. I think I could have spent a whole month looking at all the different aspects of the book!

  15. January 12, 2010 12:15 am

    I just finished the Whale as a Dish chapter.
    Cringed a little at the chapter with Stubb and the cook. Had to look past that dialect thing and focus on the humor.
    Moby-Dick is really the perfect book. Since I heart nonfiction so much now, there’s enough in the novel to satisfy me on that point. Then there’s an incredible sea story. Wow. And Melville is clearly in love with his readers, his story…his enthusiasm is touching especially after our falling out with Pierre where he’s fairly giving readers the finger and shouting F You at the top of his lungs.
    Congrats on finishing…I’m right behind you!

    • January 12, 2010 9:07 pm

      I’m SO glad that you’re enjoying Moby Dick so much!!! And I *completely* agree with everything you’ve said. :D

  16. January 12, 2010 4:17 am

    This is one of those books I know I should read (didn’t get very far the one time I tried), and I’m sure I will one day, but there is something holding me back. Perhaps it is the length of the book itself, or perhaps to do with my preconceived notions of the book or the difference in style and culture. Or maybe its the fact that I am a scientist and thus fiction relating to whales often has the air of the ridiculous for me. Regardless, I hope to read it someday and hope that I can enjoy it as much as you. Excellent review, thanks.

    If you are interested in the story behind the novel, I thoroughly recommend Nathanial Philbrick’s The Heart of the Sea. It is the story of the whaling ship sunk by a sperm whale that is believed to have inspired Melville. Excellent excellent book!

    • January 12, 2010 9:10 pm

      Before I read MD, I would have thought I wouldn’t enjoy it. But I’d be curious about your scientific view. :) I think the book isn’t really about whales, but the sailors who chase them. And this is the second recommendation I’ve gotten for Heart of the Sea-I definitely want to read it!

  17. January 12, 2010 7:49 am

    Mr. Chris! Read Moby Dick! Do it! It’s great!

    That being said…

    The cook isn’t the only black character. Dagu is black, to start with (though since he’s one of the portrayed four savages, that’s not necessarily a saving grace, despite Melivilles respect for the four), but more than that, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I missed something, but I thought Pip was black, and I LOVE Pip. He’s one of my favorite characters in the whole book. Am I wrong? Was he white and I just got mixed up?

    Also, you know there’s this really great book about Ahab’s Wife, if you’re not sated on Melville yet… :D

    • January 12, 2010 9:11 pm

      Pip is black-that’s why I brought him up! :) hehe @ Ahab’s Wife

  18. January 12, 2010 8:02 am

    Well done you for finishing it! There were parts of it I liked a lot, but the parts that I hated it sort of spoiled the book for me. I want to try Melville again though – The Confidence Man, I’m thinking.

    • January 12, 2010 9:12 pm

      I’ve read other books like that, so I sympathise. I hope your next Melville goes better!

  19. January 12, 2010 11:14 am

    It has been a very long time since I read Moby Dick (and it took me forever to get through!) so I really enjoyed reading your summary, and the quotes. Reminds me what a rich book this is. I had some trouble with the different dialects he wrote the dialog in, but remember enjoying it even though it was hard. You’ve reminded me that I do want to read it again someday.

    • January 12, 2010 9:15 pm

      I often have trouble with dialect too, but Melville’s really flowed for me for some reason.

  20. January 12, 2010 12:54 pm

    I’m reading ‘Leviathan’ (Philip Hoare, not Scott Westerfield) and I think you should definately pick it up if you haven’t already because it’s full of historical and scientific analysis of the text of Moby Dick, intended to give people a better picture of what we know and don’t know about the sperm whale.

    • January 12, 2010 9:15 pm

      That’s the second Leviathan rec! I definitely want to seek it out now. :)

  21. January 12, 2010 1:28 pm

    I’m becoming so intrigued by this book, though I must admit I’m intimidated. I have really heard great things about it. I’ve been interested since I read Ahab’s wife, which I really liked. Glad to see you’re reading it as well.

    • January 12, 2010 9:16 pm

      I ended up abandoning Ahab’s Wife, but I’m glad you liked it. :) You should give it a shot! I Was totally intimidated by it, until I started actually reading it.

  22. January 12, 2010 1:54 pm

    “a splendid read”. How I’d love to go reread it right now! I loved it when I read it before. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts.

    • January 12, 2010 9:18 pm

      It’s exciting to see other people who really loved it too! :) I kind of feel like a freak considering the amount of hate it gets. lol

  23. January 12, 2010 4:06 pm

    This was one book I just couldn’t handle in my youth, but now I wonder if it isn’t worth another go. We have a copy at my house, so I might just take the plunge. Thanks for such wonderful reviews, Eva, and I really enjoyed the passages you shared.

    • January 12, 2010 9:19 pm

      I don’t think I would have enjoy this nearly as much when I was younger! So do give it another shot at some point. :) (Maybe I should do that for some of the books I disliked in my youth…like Red Badge of Courage and Death Comes for the Archbishop and Robinson Crusoe…*shudder*)

  24. January 12, 2010 8:34 pm


  25. January 13, 2010 6:59 pm

    Great blog. I stumbled in from A Commonplace Blog. You indicated you might read more Melville. If you don’t have anything specific in mind, I highly recommend Bartleby, the Scrivener. It is short, quick, and brilliant. Now I have to befriend the white whale, your case (nevermind the reputation) is compelling.

    I like your blog and book selections, I will definitely be back.


    • January 19, 2010 2:07 am

      Thanks Kerry! (And sorry it took me awhile to reply.) I’ve gone ahead and put in a request for Bartleby-I’m quite excited about it!

  26. January 14, 2010 2:27 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Almost everyone I knew hated it in high school – I wonder if a little maturity helps things out. I’ll have to give it a try one of these days. Maybe I’ll make it one of my monthly projects and see if I like it as much as you did!

    There is so much racism in older works. I try to ignore it and not blame the author as I realize that things and people have hopefully changed a lot since then, but I always worry what happens if someone who is already racist has their views enforced by a classic. That can’t be a good thing.

    • January 19, 2010 2:08 am

      Yeah-I don’t think I would have enjoyed it much in high school.

      You know…I think many of Melville’s portrayals of the non-white characters were really progressive for his time. It’s his *descriptions* that really damn him, in that he shows that tacit assumption that white is better. You know?

  27. January 16, 2010 1:47 pm

    Beautiful review! I saw a play which was based on ‘Moby Dick’ sometime back and at that time I wanted to read the book, but was daunted by its size. Now your review has inspired me to read the book :) I loved all your favourite quotes too.

    By the way, does Starbucks coffee take its name from the character Starbuck in ‘Moby Dick’?

    • January 19, 2010 2:09 am

      One of the other participants said that yes, Starbucks comes from that Starbuck. :) I’m watching Battlestar Galactica right now, and there’s a Starbuck in it too! Moby Dick had quite the impact on our popular culture. :)

      The book isn’t nearly as long as I thought it would be…maybe the edition you were looking at had a bunch of extras?

      • January 22, 2010 11:53 pm

        Thanks for the information! That is an interesting discovery about Starbuck! I will ask it as a trivia question, whenever I have a discussion on coffee or literature with friends :)

        Interesting to know that there is a Starbuck in ‘Battlestar Galactica’ too :) Are you watching the old version or the newer version?

        My edition has a few extras – letters by Herman Melville, reviews of ‘Moby Dick’ when it was published and what contemporary critics think of it. But you are right – it is not too big. My edition is around 670 pages. It is just that mentally one feels that the book is big and intimidating. Maybe I will get started on it soon :)


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