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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Moby Dick is a story of vengeance, brotherhood, and single-mindedness to the point of madness.  The tale is told by Ishmael, a young man who ends up becoming part of the crew of the Pequod, the ship sailed by Captain Ahab.  Ahab is obsessed with killing the white whale (Moby Dick) who is responsible for Ahab's loss of his leg, which is now made of whale jawbone from the knee down. The crew signs on for a whaling voyage like many others of the time, planning to bring back blubber which is made into oil for lanterns and lamps; a few weeks into the voyage, though, Ahab informs the men of his quest for vengeance and his plan to seek the white whale and kill it. The men are excited by the prospect, and, with the exception of Starbuck (the 1st mate) they are on board with Ahab's plan. They encounter a few whales along the journey and successfully kill some of them, but Ahab is concerned only with finding Moby Dick. Starbuck becomes increasingly concerned about Ahab's obsession and ardently believes that if they find Moby Dick they will not return home alive. Starbuck even considers killing Ahab and taking over the ship, but something keeps him from pulling the trigger.  Queequeg (another crew member and friend of Ishmael) has a coffin constructed when he falls ill and thinks he might die. After Queequeg makes a full recovery, he requests that the coffin be remade into a lifebuoy. At last, after several months (and possibly years - time is a bit hard to discern here) the crew comes across a ship who has just attempted to kill Moby Dick. Despite the ship's warning otherwise, Ahab sets sail exactly for the suspected course of Moby Dick. They encounter the white whale, and after three days' chase, the whale crushes the Pequod and all the crew members are drowned, save one. Ishmael alone survives by clutching Queequeg's coffin.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you're not familiar with Moby Dick and you're thinking of reading it, I won't necessarily say don't, but I will say BEWARE. The book, while it contains some lovely sentences and a few really cool scenes of Ahab's increasing mania, has very little action until the end, and is very. very. long. Not long in the page number count area (only 471 in my version) but has a tendency to go on about every detail imaginable about whaling and the ship. So feel free to dive in - I enjoyed it, on the whole - but be ready.

-The book starts out with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost that I loved:
 "There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, in the deep
Stretch'd like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea."

-Much like in Frankenstein, this book had a great deal of heavy foreshadowing (drenching rain, sermons on death, graves at the seaside church before departure, a prophet foretelling their doom, etc.) and I just don't get it! It's a great story - why do you want to GIVE IT ALL AWAY? Save some for later, okays?

-Starbuck is the only crew member with a real backbone in this book, and I found his conflict fascinating. He treads carefully around Ahab, and though he disagrees (and Ahab knows it) with the mission to search for Moby Dick, he respects Captain Ahab. My favorite line is when Ahab pulls a gun on Starbuck after he suggests they make a move that is contrary to Ahab's desires. Instead of telling Ahab to watch his back, Starbuck tells him, "let Ahab beware of Ahab." His message never quite gets all the way through, but he does help keep Ahab from plunging into total madness until the bitter end.

-Like I said, the book feels long. It has 135 chapters (And an Epilogue!) and includes chapters on such things as cetology (the study of whales), the line, the dart, the crotch, the cutting in, the blanket, the monkey-rope, the cistern and buckets, pitchpoling, ambergris, stowing down and clearing up, the candles, the musket, the needle, the log and the line. If you're not familiar with some of these fishing terms, DON'T WORRY! Melville will explain them to you in MINUTE detail.

-I was struck throughout the book by how nasty a business whaling is/was. They throw spears at the whales until the whales become massive bloody corpses, and then they bore a hole in their sides and roll them over and over with a hook attached to peel off strips of their blubber while sharks attack the whale's carcass. And don't even get me started with what the men do with the rest of the whale!

-I loved Ishmael's description of the mast-head and what it's like to keep watch there:
"The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor.  For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner - for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable."
Doesn't that sound delightful?

-Ahab is totally and completely crazy! It's the best and the worst part of the book - the worst because it gets the whole crew killed in the end (except for Ishmael, who's sort of a wet blanket) and the best because it makes for the most drama and interesting character study. There are many instances where we see this in the book, but my favorites are:
(1) When we find out from Ishmael that a typical whaler carries enough water for a year or so and stops on land at least once or twice a year, and that Ahab has stocked the Pequod with enough water for four years and in the entire story, not once do they set foot on land.
(2) Ahab has a crew of Arabs stow away on the Pequod and they APPEAR at an opportune moment; the crew later realizes this is because the men wouldn't normally trust going out in a small boat with Ahab to attack a whale, and he plans to be at the head of a boat to kill Moby Dick. No one would be in his small boat crew, so he sneaks one on for himself and TA DA! they appear several months into the voyage. Amazing. ALSO, where do you hide on a boat for several Months?
(3) After he first tells the crew of his plans, Ahab goes back in his cabin and talks to himself. Even though he didn't really care if the men would be on board with his plan or not, most of them are, and he says to himself, "They think me mad - Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac. I am madness maddened!...I will dismember my dismemberer!" You tell yourself, Ahab!
(4) When other ships approach, it is common for them to pull close and swap stories and information, and if desired, for the captains to meet on one of the ships to chat. When a ship passes him by, Ahab assumes he is being slighted and it has something to do with Moby Dick. I loved the line -- "Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings." Ahab mutters to himself, "Swim away from me, do ye?" I love the image of Ahab crouched by the edge of the ship, muttering to himself and assuming that other ships are keeping secrets from him about the infamous white whale.
(5) The captain of one of the last ships that Ahab encounters has suffered a similar fate to Ahab, and has lost an arm to Moby Dick. In response to Ahab's favorite question (Hast seen the White Whale?) the captain simply holds up his whalebone arm and shouts, "See you this?" A-m-a-zing. Ahab is so excited that he leaps into the sea, only to realize that he can no longer climb into another ship (sad!); the other captain sympathetically realizes the problem and has Ahab lifted onto the ship using a whale hook. It seems like Ahab might have finally found a friend, but when the fellow commander realizes Ahab is STILL LOOKING for the white whale despite his injury, the commander assumes Ahab must be mad. (Which, in fact, he is.)

Some sentences I particularly liked:
  • Circumabulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon.
  • What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights!
  • The world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
  • Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness.
  • I believe that much of a man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are.
  • As the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul. (And yes, that is one sentence - I even cut out the first 5 semicolons!)
And, perhaps my favorite, "Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?"

I'm off to untangle the famous Michelangelo Cipher. Adieu!

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