Moby-Dick was not particularly well liked when it was first published in 1851. Somehow, though, between then and now, it has achieved ‘classic novel’ status, and is often, if not always, on the list of ‘Great American Novels’. This is, to be quite honest, a bit of a worry. ‘Cause if this is the greatest American novel, I’d hate to see the others.
“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous lines to ever open a novel. Everyone knows it. And it kicks off a book with so much potential, you really really want to like it. Or I did anyway. And, for a while, I really did. Ishmael tells us that the sea is in his blood, and he will go down to Nantucket (the whaling capital of America at the time) every now and then to jump on board a boat, and go sailing. This particular time, he meets a wild savage, Queequeg, on his journey to Nantucket, and together, they decide to travel upon the Pequod, owned by three mad captains, one of whom is almost never seen on land. Captain Ahab. Despite many people’s warnings, Ishmael and Queequeg maintain their decision, and thus, the three year whaling mission is born.
The mystery that surrounds all of this is brilliantly done. Melville brings us everything we come to expect from a ‘classic novel’ – interesting characters, intrigue, and most of all, exceptionally dry humour. It is unfortunate then, that once we get onto the ship itself, it all goes downhill. Quite quickly.
Melville, as a member of the Romantic school, believes that the novel is the best place for history. It is the job of the novel to tell the history of the time it is in. Unfortunately, Melville chooses to tell the history of whaling. The entire history of whaling. Which, to be honest, is interesting for about ten pages, then just gets deadly boring. On the plus side, I now know everything I ever could about whaling in the 1850s, but that’s not really what I set out for. As the story progresses, if there is even the slightest hint of whaling jargon, he will spend an entire chapter explaining the term, and how it relates to whales. For goodness sake, there are almost 30 pages describing the scientific classification of every known species of whale, and how they relate to each other.
When the story does find its way to prominence, it is really quite good. The beginning in particular, as well as the final showdown, are both excellent examples of Melville in full swing, creating a fantastically imagined world. His own whaling background, I suspect, helped immensely in his ability to recreate life aboard the Pequod, and the ship politics that take place.
Moby-Dick is very much a book of two halves. The story that Melville tells – a mad sea-dog trying to take revenge against an almost mythical creature, because of a lost limb – is pretty good. It is unfortunate, then, that this gets bogged down by the whale encyclopaedia that ensues. I think if this was taken out, then yes, Moby-Dick could very well be one of the greatest American novels ever written. But, since this is never going to happen (and I’m certainly not advocating that it should,) it is up to each person to decide how much they really want to know about whales.