“Moby-Dick” is actually good! Who knew?!

I’ve been reading Moby-Dick by Herman Melville the last few weeks because I’m going to use the novel as a turning point for my  star-crossed characters in the sequel to my first novel, The Outer Banks House. In my first novel, I used Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe as a turning point for the same characters. I also began each chapter with a relevant quote from Robinson Crusoe, and I plan to start each chapter in the sequel with quotes from Moby-Dick. Such grand ideas!

But first, I have to read the darned book.

Moby-Dick is a large book, as far as books go (655 pages), and as alien to me as a T.S. Eliot poem. And yet, I was an English major at UVA. How did I manage to dodge what some believe is the greatest American novel ever written? I mean, it’s so large! Hard to miss on a syllabus, and even harder to dodge when thrown at you. I have considered the fact that I might have been assigned the book at some point in my college career, but just squeaked by on the Cliff Notes so that I could keep up with all the keg parties. I mean, I had my priorities, and the classics were kind of low on the list.

Moby-Dick’s important reputation precedes it , but that wasn’t the case when it was first published. In fact, the book was mostly panned by British and American critics, and Melville, who at the time was a rather popular author, never quite recovered from the blow.

But throughout my lifetime, I’ve been intimidated by even the tiniest mention of the book Moby-Dick. Its title alone suggests monstrosity and a dark abyss of confusion. I’d have been perfectly happy to while my days away reading Diana Gabaldon’s novels over and over, but something in my subconscious told me to consider it for my sequel. See, Ben finds a byproduct (can’t reveal what it is, it would spoil it!) of a sperm whale, but eventually finds that the booty isn’t necessarily his for the taking. He gets rather obsessed about his secret find, thinking things will now get better between him and Abby when he trades it in for cash. In the name of his treasure, he makes decisions that compromise his character.

Moby-Dick is himself a sperm whale, at first hunted for his byproducts of oil and spermaceti as all whales were, but as the novel progresses, we find that the particular white-headed whale is being hunted by Captain Ahab for revenge purposes only. Ahab took it quite personally when Moby-Dick bit off one of his legs, and he is obsessed with his killing quest, much as Ben is obsessed with his treasure. I can see the light in your eyes; you’re getting it! I’m happy with the choice of Moby-Dick as well.

But I’m also happy to be reading it. Melville writes with a sense of humor that I find rare in a mid-19th century author. It’s not even that hard to understand the high-blown style of language. It’s easier than reading Shakespeare, if that helps. Mind, it won’t do to read the book while drinking wine. You need all of your mental faculties about you when pick up the book. And a Cliffs Notes wouldn’t hurt either. (After every chapter, I read the Cliffs Notes to see what the hell the chapter was really about.) Here is a funny bit about narrator/sailor Ishmael’s observations about a dark-skinned harpooner Queequeg that he is forced to share a bed in a crowded in with:

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife…I lay only alive to the comical predicament. For though I tried to move his arm–unlock his bridegroom grasp–yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain. I now strove to rouse him–“Queequeg!”–but his only answer was a snore. I then rolled over, my neck feeling as if it were in a horse-collar; and suddenly felt a slight scratch. Throwing aside the counterpane, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage’s side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby. A pretty pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk! “Queequeg!–in the name of goodness, Queequeg, wake!” At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt; and presently he drew back his arm, shook himself all over like a Newfoundland dog just from the water, and sat up in bed, stiff as a pike-staff, looking at me, and rubbing his eyes as if he did not altogether remember how I came to be there…”  p. 54.

I could go on and on with quote after quote; Moby-Dick is filled with gems of comic genius! I wouldn’t lie to you, it’s worth a read. I’m not even half-way done, but I actually look forward to reading it at night. Those long-ago critics had no idea what they were dealing with.


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