Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Moby Dick

Moby Dick (1851), Herman Melville. Paperback, 672 pages. 

Summary: Moby Dick is, simply put, the kick-assiest of the Great American novels. In a way, it was the first and, in my opinion, perhaps the best of any novel that tried to channel the zeitgeist of its time. Sure, Moby Dick is about a man seeking revenge on a whale. But more than that, it is about the battle between good and evil, between the known and the unknown, between everything and nothing. It may be arguable that Moby Dick should be considered a "fantasy" novel. I consider it such because it so brilliantly explores the unexplainable, cosmic, and even magical qualities of life and death, and summons a monumental and terrible foe in the White Whale that easily trumps Sauron, Voldemort, or any other fantastic evil you could imagine. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. 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. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.


Writing Quality: 8/10

Depth of Concept: 10/10

Rounded Characters: 10/10

Well-Developed World: 10/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 10/10

Overall Recommendation: 10/10


Writing Quality: 8/10. Melville is a great wordsmith, there is no doubt about that. And if I was a little bit more versed in the development of literary language, I might come to the opinion that Melville is better than an 8, perhaps even a 9 or a 10. But my taste has been shaped, for better or worse, by more recent syntax and articulation. I can see wonderful phrases frequently as I flip through the novel now, but by scoring Melville a little lower, it allows me to put Cormac McCarthy, who fits my syntactical taste a bit better, a little higher.

Depth of Concept: 10/10. Holy Cow. Really, I should score this an 11. Anything you've ever thought about life, it's in this novel. Any interpretation you've ever had about good or evil, about power, about struggle, about beauty, about transcendence, it's in here. And whatever you think about those things, the opposite view is equally present. Maybe Ahab is a hero, an allegory for Christ. Maybe he is a villain, an allegory for Satan. The brilliance of this novel is that everything is possible, with enough material on hand for you to come up with almost any theory and follow it to some sort of conclusion from the beginning through to the end of the novel. But that's not because it's mushy or unfocused; it's because it's expansive, and nuanced, and impossible to pin down perfectly, just like life itself. Since I first read this novel for an English class, I can't say if all of my reactions would be the same if I had picked it up on my own. But with a competent instructor as a guide, reading this novel was like discovering God and then second-guessing myself. If you can't tell, I'm really into this novel, and it (along with Cormac McCarthy's The Road as a masterful piece that in some ways is on the opposite side of the spectrum) is probably my benchmark for what makes a truly incredible work of art.

Rounded Characters: 10/10. For the same reasons that I describe above, the "roundness" of the characters in this novel is unsurpassed by any other novelized characters that I am aware of. You might roll your eyes at someone who says they learn something new every time they read a novel -- I usually take such statements a little skeptically myself. But if there's one novel to use that expression for, it's Moby Dick. Every character has about a thousand ways he interacts with the story, in ways both unexpected and profound. Anyone who reads Moby Dick as merely a revenge tale, or sees Ahab as merely a crazy man bent on revenge, hasn't had the courage to do more than wade on the shore of the ocean that is Moby Dick. As a starting question, you might ask yourself, is the novel Ahab's story or Ishmael's? Which you choose will determine a lot about the way you see the characters, and it might be a fun exercise to try switching one for the other.

Well-Developed World: 10/10. The world of Moby Dick is the Universe, as far and as big as you can imagine it, and then a little beyond that. Clearly, I have a problem with hyperbole when it comes to this novel. But it won't take long into reading Moby Dick to get a sense of its encyclopedic nature; if there's a book to read about both the trivial details of whaling and the psychological inclinations of a whaler, this fulfills both to the maximum.

Page Turner: 7/10. Moby Dick is daunting, there's no doubt about that. Even reading just a few pages can feel like a mental workout. But while some people may not connect with the material, I never found it "boring." In fact, I found Moby Dick more readable than a variety of other novels I'm reviewing, including Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World. It's certainly not fast-paced, but each of its many chapters is a jewel, and it feels satisfying to bite off each one of them and digest.

Kept Me Thinking: 10/10. See above.

Overall Recommendation: 10/10. Moby Dick is the bomb. I'm sure there are those who don't care for it, and I hope they'll comment and explain why. If I had tried to read it outside of an English class, I sometimes wonder if I'd have gotten through it; it just has so many ideas. And if you're only reading it for the plot, you'll be frustrated, since the plot is only a place for the bigger ideas to stand and dance about, and generally taunt linear narratives. But if you want to have anything to say about American literature, even if you don't like this book, you've got to read it.

Books To Compare: Herman Melville's Moby Dick is the jewel of American literature. In its influence as a literary work of art, it stands up there with anything by Milton or Shakespeare. Any novel that has a young man on a vision-quest probably owes something to Melville's Ishmael, and any megalomaniac villain owes something to Ahab. You could make some thoughtful comparisons with Shakespeare's King Lear, Homer's The Oddyssey, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, or any variety of other brilliant works. If you want to look more modern, I think Salman Rushdie compares in a lot of interesting stylistic ways, and it's possible the popular modern trend toward footnotes in fiction (think A. S. Byatt's Possession, Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, etc.) is a direct result of Melville's extensive use of them. In any event, Moby Dick contains multitudes, and as such could stand being compared to most great works. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Moby Dick on Amazon.


  1. I've really got to give this book a go (I've downloaded it from Gutenberg Project).

    I started reading the printed version once, but couldn't get past the list of whales to hunt. I'll attempt it again. Perhaps it'll be my Great White Whale.

    1. It's one you've really got to commit to. To be honest, I can't be sure i'd have made it through if I wasn't reading it for a class, so you'll probably want to manage your expectations and just accept that it'll be hard work. But if you can just make yourself go slow, and enjoy trying to find connections under the surface of Melville's words, you'll be rewarded. I wonder if you would get the most out of it if you got a Critical edition that included perspectives that might to help shed light on things. But, regardless, good luck and bon voyage!