Wednesday, July 1, 2009

124. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

March 2008
History: Published in 1851. Although the book initially received mixed reviews, Moby-Dick is now considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and has secured Melville's place among America's greatest writers. Two actual events inspired Melville's tale. One was the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which foundered in 1820 after it was rammed by a large sperm whale 2,000 miles (3,700 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Already out-of-print, the book was rare even at the time. Knowing that Melville was looking for it, his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, managed to find a copy and buy it for him. When Melville received it, he fell to it almost immediately, heavily annotating it.
The other event was the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, who was usually encountered in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. Riddled with dozens of harpoons from his numerous escapes from whalers, Mocha Dick often attacked ships with premeditated ferocity. One of his battles with a whaler served as subject for an article by explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds[4] in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker, New York Monthly Magazine. Melville was familiar with the article, which described "an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength... [that] was white as wool". Significantly, Reynolds writes a first-person narration that serves as a frame for the story of a whaling captain he meets. The captain resembles Ahab and suggests a possible symbolism for whales in that, when his crew first encounters Mocha Dick and cowers from him, the captain rallies them thus: "'Mocha Dick or the d----l [devil],' said I, 'this boat never sheers off from any thing that wears the shape of a whale.'"
Mocha Dick had over 100 battles with whalers. First noted (because of his color, and later for his wounds) in 1810, he battled them on a regular basis until the late 1830s. He was described as being giant (even for a whale). He was covered in barnacles. Mocha Dick may not have been the only white whale in the sea. A Swedish whaleship claimed to have taken a very old white whale in 1859,; a retired Nantucket whaleship claimed to have harpooned a white whale in 1902. Nor was he the only whale to attack his hunters. Periodic attacks on whaleboats were recorded until they were replaced by the harpoon gun. In 1850, the bark Parker Cook was rammed in mid-Atlantic; the crew killed and harvested the whale, but had to put into port for repairs. Later that same year, the Pocahontas was almost sunk in the same area. In 1851, not long after publication of the novel, the Ann Alexander was destroyed by a sperm whale near where the Essex was sunk, but the crew were picked up the next day. The most important inspiration for the novel was Melville's experiences as a sailor, in particular those during 1841-1842 on the whaleship Acushnet. He had already drawn on his different sailing experiences in previous novels—Mardi the closest to Moby-Dick in its symbolic or allegorical aspirations—but he had never focused specifically on whaling. Melville had read Chase's account before sailing on the Acushnet in 1841; he was excited about sighting Captain Chase himself, who had returned to sea. During a midocean "gam" (rendezvous) he met Chase's son William, who loaned him his father's book.
Moby-Dick contains large sections — most of them narrated by Ishmael — that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot but describe aspects of the whaling business. Melville believed that no book up to that time had portrayed the whaling industry in as fascinating or immediate a way as he had experienced it.
Plot: The narrator, an observant young man setting out from Manhattan, has experience in the merchant marine but has recently decided his next voyage will be on a whaling ship. On a cold, gloomy night in December, he arrives at the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and agrees to share a bed with a then-absent stranger. When his bunkmate, a heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooneer named Queequeg, returns very late and discovers Ishmael beneath his covers, both men are alarmed, but the two quickly become close friends and decide to sail together from Nantucket, Massachusetts on a whaling voyage.
In Nantucket, the pair signs on with the Pequod, a whaling ship that is soon to leave port. The ship’s captain, Ahab, is nowhere to be seen; nevertheless, they are told of him – a "grand, ungodly, godlike man," according to one of the owners, who has "been in colleges as well as 'mong the cannibals." The two friends encounter a mysterious man named Elijah on the dock after they sign their papers and he hints at troubles to come with Ahab. The mystery grows on Christmas morning when Ishmael spots dark figures in the mist, apparently boarding the Pequod shortly before it sets sail that day.
The ship’s officers direct the early voyage while Ahab stays in his cabin. The chief mate is Starbuck, a serious, sincere Quaker and fine leader; second mate is Stubb, happy-go-lucky and cheerful and always smoking his pipe; the third mate is Flask, short and stout but thoroughly reliable. Each mate is responsible for a whaling boat, and each whaling boat of the Pequod has its own pagan harpooneer assigned it. Some time after sailing, Ahab finally appears on the quarter-deck one morning, an imposing, frightening figure whose haunted visage sends shivers over the narrator. (A white scar, reportedly from a thunderbolt, runs down his face and it is hinted that it continues the length of his body.) One of his legs is missing from the knee down and has been replaced by a prosthesis fashioned from a sperm whale's jawbone.
Soon gathering the crewmen together, with a rousing speech Ahab secures their support for his single, secret purpose for this voyage: hunting down and killing Moby Dick, an old, very large sperm whale, with a snow-white hump and mottled skin, that crippled Ahab on his last whaling voyage. Only Starbuck shows any sign of resistance to the charismatic but monomaniacal captain. The first mate argues repeatedly that the ship’s purpose should be to hunt whales for their oil, with luck returning home profitably, safely, and quickly, but not to seek out and kill Moby Dick in particular – and especially not for revenge. Eventually even Starbuck acquiesces to Ahab's will, though harboring misgivings.
The mystery of the dark figures seen before the Pequod set sail is explained during the voyage's first lowering for whales. Ahab has secretly brought along his own boat crew, including a mysterious harpooneer named Fedallah, an inscrutable figure with a sinister influence over Ahab. Later, while watching one night over a captured whale carcass, Fedallah darkly prophecies to Ahab hints regarding their twin deaths.
The novel describes numerous "gams," social meetings of two ships on the open sea. Crews normally visit each other during a gam, captains on one vessel and chief mates on the other. Mail may be exchanged and the men talk of whale sightings or other news. For Ahab, however, there is but one relevant question to ask of another ship: “Hast seen the White Whale?” After meeting several other whaling ships, which have their own peculiar stories, the Pequod enters the Pacific Ocean. Queequeg becomes deathly ill and requests that a coffin be built for him by the ship’s carpenter. Just as everyone has given up hope, Queequeg changes his mind, deciding to live after all, and recovers quickly. His coffin becomes his sea chest, and is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod's life buoy.
Soon word is heard from other whalers of Moby Dick. The jolly Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby has lost an arm to the whale, and is stunned at Ahab's burning need for revenge. Next they meet the Rachel, which has seen Moby Dick very recently. As a result of the encounter, one of its boats is missing; the captain’s youngest son had been aboard. The Rachel's captain begs Ahab to aid in the search for the missing boat, but Ahab is resolute. The Pequod’s captain is very near the White Whale now and will not stop to help. Finally the Delight is met, even as its captain buries a sailor who had been killed by Moby Dick. Starbuck begs Ahab one final time to reconsider his thirst for vengeance, but to no avail.
The next day, the Pequod meets Moby Dick. For two days, the Pequod's crew pursues the whale, which wreaks widespread destruction, including the disappearance of Fedallah. After the storm, Ahab himself sights the whale and gives chase. Several times the whale smashes the smaller boats sent after it. On the third day of the chase the tiring whale turns on the Pequod and "smote the starboard bow". As he watches his ship sink, Ahab desperately hurls a harpoon into the side of the whale from one of the repaired boats, cursing the whale and saying: "…Let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee…!" The dangerous harpoon line catches the fated Ahab around the neck and catapults him out of the boat after the fast-retreating whale. With Ahab disposed of in one way, the rest are lost in quite another, soon discovering a lethal whirlpool created by the sinking ship, that "seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight." Our narrator, who had earlier fallen out of Ahab's boat and observed it all from the perimeter of the scene, becomes the sole survivor.
Review: I listened to this book. I didn’t think I would like it, but I really did. I really got into the time and place, and the characters and the whole whaling industry. It’s amazing, some of these classics, you know the story of them but the book is still irresistible.
The characters of Herman Melville's Moby Dick each have certain characteristics that make them stand apart from the other showing that Melville wanted to make them relative to the various people of society. Captain Ahab is the main character that will be discussed because he has a soul that is dark and mysterious and has more unknown seas within him then anything else.
The hard and dangerous lives of the whale hunter are used as references to life that Melville paints throughout the novel. These metaphors have to be brought out into the light and analyzed because the hidden messages about life that are used, strengthen the novel. There are various components of the novel that represent life through the allegories Melville creates and this is how they can relate to everyone's life.
One of the greatest characters in the novel is the sea. The sea is all-powerful and has such a great relevance to the soul of man. The sea is evil and strange and it can never be changed or tamed. It cannot be controlled, and the human being is the same.
This symbolism of the land and sea pulls out how the land is safer for the average man. Melville is telling the reader to look at the pain and struggle Ahab is going through and to take it as a warning. It is easy to see what can happen if one man stays on the perilous seas for forty years. The sea does terrible things to a man's mind, controlling him and dragging him out from the land full of peace and happiness even if the land does not have thrills and adventure, which most men seek. Ahab has abandoned his wife and child for the sake of killing Moby Dick and he will die doing it, this is the horrible crime the sea has committed on the mind of Ahab. The dangerous part of the soul, the sea, lies within all of us, and if we do not suppress it by staying on the land, it will consume us.
Opening Line: “Call me Ishmael.”
Closing Line: “It was the devious cruising Rachel, that found in her retracing search for her missing children, only found another orphan.”
Quotes: “And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potter's Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.”
Rating: Very Good.

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