Loretta Barnard

Book bluffer’s guide: Moby Dick

Approx Reading Time-11There’s a large list of colossal classics that sit in our “one day” pile. Until that day comes, fake it, with our Book Bluff treatment of Moby Dick. Warning: spoilers abound.

 


“Call me Ishmael.”

So begins Moby Dick (1851), one of the great novels in the American literary pantheon. We’ll start this first instalment of Book-Bluff – where we save you the trouble of reading the classics – by saying that this is one of the most memorable opening lines in all literature. (There’s an opening gambit if ever I heard one.)

Ishmael is the novel’s narrator. He suggests we call him Ishmael because well, that’s his name. Sounds far more appealing than “My name’s Tom”, and it invites the reader into the minutiae of the whaling world.

The book is in fact more about whaling, shipboard life, different philosophies, friendship and the contrast between the technologically superior white men and the morally superior non-whites than it is about Ahab and the whale; although obviously Ahab’s obsessive quest to revenge himself on Moby Dick is the driving force behind the action.

It should be pointed out that whaling was a different kettle of fish from twenty-first century so-called “scientific” whaling. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was considered a worthy pursuit as whale products were widely used for fuel, oil, lighting, corsets, perfumes, meat and more. Author Herman Melville manages to provide a sense of the thrill of the hunt while simultaneously conveying something of the cruelty involved in whaling. Interestingly, quite late in the book Ishmael remarks that whales could never be hunted to extinction because the ocean is too big. Little did he know!


Also on The Big Smoke


Anyway, on with the voyage. Hopefully a few salient facts will be enough for you to bluff your listeners into believing you’ve read the book from cover to cover.

Herman Melville (1819-1891) himself worked as a crewman on whaling ships so he knew what he was talking about. His descriptions of shipboard life are detailed, informed and enlightening. His other works also focused on sea voyages, including Typee (1846), Omoo (1847) and Billy Budd (1924 – yes, published posthumously).

The full name of this epic novel is Moby Dick, or The Whale. It was critically well-received but sold poorly and only came to literary prominence a decade or two after Melville’s death. His works after Moby Dick were also commercial failures. Poor old Melville essentially threw in the writing towel afterwards.

The name “Moby Dick” is apparently based on a white whale seen near the island of Mocha off the Chilean coast in the 1830s. Referred to as “Mocha Dick”, it reportedly destroyed 20 whaling ships. To be fair, the whaling ships wanted to kill him; when they attacked, Mocha Dick retaliated. And quite right too. Melville put his own spin on the name, and the rest is history.

Now this is the most significant thing you need to know if you’re going to bullshit your way into literary discussions. The whale itself – the albino sperm whale with the grand name – doesn’t even make an entrance until Chapter 133. That’s the third-last chapter of the book. Even though Ahab’s been chasing Moby Dick for the entire voyage, his appearance is such a surprise that “the men on deck rushed to the rigging to behold the famous whale they had so long been pursuing”. Talk about the climax coming in the very last pages of this 600-page adventure.

Anyway, as we’ve gathered from hearing the stories about him, the thing about Moby Dick is that he has a sort of prescience and is always one step ahead of mere humans (and that’s a whale step, so it’s biiiiiig).

Some interpret this as god-like, that Moby Dick is a version of a supreme being. His environment is inaccessible to humans, and there’s no way of knowing him in any real sense. Yep, that allegorical allusion seems to hold water.

Now to Captain Ahab. He’s a bit of a nutter. He lost his leg to the whale years before and now his entire reason for living is to get retribution. Really, you’ve never seen a man so consumed. His prosthetic leg is even made of whalebone. He’s a man with a mission, that’s for sure, but he’s got Buckley’s. His death is suitably gothic (in a watery sense) when the harpoon line catches him round the neck “and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victims, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone”.

Starbuck acts a kind of foil to Ahab. He’s the voice of reason, a god-fearing man who tries to temper Ahab’s monomania. He respects the superior strength of the whale as a force of nature but, drawn in by the captain’s magnetic personality, he goes along with Ahab’s crazy crusade.

Dragged by his nemesis into the depths of the sea on the second last page, Ahab is now sleeping with the fishes.

Here are a few extra titbits for your added bluffing pleasure.

First mate Starbuck (no relation to the coffee people) acts a kind of foil to Ahab. He’s the voice of reason, a god-fearing man who tries to temper Ahab’s monomania. He respects the superior strength of the whale as a force of nature but, drawn in by the captain’s magnetic personality, he goes along with Ahab’s crazy crusade.

Ishmael’s friend, mentor and advisor is Queequeg, the heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooner, who’s a prince in his native land. His fearsome exterior belies his innate kind-heartedness and he teaches Ishmael that whatever our race, beliefs, customs, religion, we’re all in this together, that our human experiences have a commonality.

Any bluffer keen to make an impression should mention the symbolism of Queequeg’s coffin: an article associated with death turns out to save a life. That’s Ishmael, the only survivor of the final encounter between men and leviathan.

Our last point for today’s Moby Dick Book-Bluff is the name of the ship, the doomed Pequod. Its name provides a hint – the fate of the Pequod (or Pequot) tribe of Native Americans was destined for annihilation once white settlers took up residence. Get it? Neither the tribe nor the ship survived. In addition, the Pequod is decorated with whalebones and teeth. Wonderful grisly symbolism.

So that’s a little taste of Moby Dick. It should be enough to get you through the occasional literary soirée.

If you’d like Book-Bluff to cover a specific classic of literature, please email the Editor.

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

Related posts

Top