Back on Long Island, another island involved in the whaling trade by the way, I spent yesterday reading the end of Moby Dick. I also spent some time reading about Herman Melville on Wikipedia. When the novel was originally published, it was not greeted with enthusiasm, and received very critical reviews. One edition of the book was published without the epilogue, which is the final chapter and the book doesn't end very well without it (although I don't think the end is very well written.) Although the novel has a lot of things wrong with it, it was somewhat enjoyable to read. My recommendation: if you want to read a great sea novel read Mutiny on the Bounty. A well written, well paced novel that holds up over time.
One of the reasons I think I have avoided Moby Dick for so long is not the length of the book, but the idea that it was written on many levels, and it took a lot to understand all the hidden parts of the story. Okay, I can see that the novel is much more than a sea adventure. But I guess I am a better reader than I have given myself credit for, because I don't think I missed anything. So here are the top 5 themes I have gotten out of the book:
1. Moby Dick is a sea adventure story.
2. Ishmael is a closet homosexual and there seems to be quite a homoerotic theme going on here.
3. Herman Melville documents the whaling industry as well as a classification system for whales and the possibility that unchecked the whaling industry could precipitate the extinction of whales.
4. A portrayal of religious tolerance/superstition/civilization and anarchy.
5. Man vs. Nature: nature wins.
The morality themes in the book are a bit ambiguous. The first mate, Starbuck, seems the only voice of reason onboard the Pequod, and in the end he choses to go along with the way things are and ends up dead with the crew, which he knew would be the final end if he did not act and relieve the captain of his duty. Being the only one on board who saw Ahab's madness for what it was, he would most likely have ended up dead for mutiny if he had acted. He was in a no win situation. I think he was hoping that Ahab would end up dead trying to kill Moby Dick and then he could sail back home to Nantucket with the remnants of the crew. Unfortunately he underestimated the whale. Oh well.
I think Melville forgot his narrator was Ishmael. We totally loose his perspective of what is happening on board the boat after a very homoerotic scene involving whale blubber (Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand). We don't hear back from Ishmael until the epilogue where *SPOILERS* he tells us he is the sole survivor. Not much more than that. Not how he got back after the Rachel picks him up, and how he was tasked with explaining the fate of the ship and crew back in Nantucket, if he even returned there again. Not his feelings about the death of his friend Quequeg, or how he got along with him on board for that matter (perhaps those were too steamy for publication in 1851.)
I've been noticing a lot of whales turing up in my life lately. The Nantucket whale sticker we have on our car, the white whale symbol on the Real Estate for sale sign in front of my house, this book, turning on the TV and catching a scene of a whale in the ocean. What is the universe trying to tell me? Since I live in a culture that embraces the whale as an intelligent mammal that needs to be protected and respected, I hope these whales in my life are more symbolic of happy tidings on the horizon.
Art notes: all photographs in both of these Moby Dick posts were taken on Nantucket using my iPhone.