From the very first page, this book turned all my expectations upside down. The well-known opening line, "Call me Ishmael," sets up for a rather colloquial, straightforward sort of narrative, and so even though I knew the book was written in the mid 19th century, I was expecting something much rougher from it. Instead, Melville presents an economy and elegance of language which I have never seen in any other novel: his phrasing is precise, clever, powerful, unornamented. That he should have dedicated his novel to Hawthorne is to me almost ridiculous. Melville himself is everything Hawthorne tried to be but never was.
A great part of the book is about whales, ships, and whaling, which I suppose might sound a little dull to anyone not interested in whales. I myself was nearly as fascinated with Melville's descriptions of the whaling vessel, and the whales, living, dying, dead, expressed into barrels, fossilized, painted, sculpted, historical, biblical, fictional, and theoretical, as I was with the characters and the voyage. Melville's attitude toward whales is a little confusing, since he's continually expounding their magnificence and supremacy, and how they've existed since before the first man and will continue existing beyond the last, and how their majesty surpasses that of all other beasts; how they are both reverent and godlike; how it is impossible not to respect them; how terrible and humanly agonized their deaths are... And yet he has no qualms at all about killing them, and even argues at great length for the nobility of the enterprise of whaling. I suppose it's as he says of men: that as a species, they are divine, the paragon of God's handiwork; but that nevertheless each individual is somehow expendable, redundant. Even the crew of the Pequod is ultimately expendable, in spite of all Melville's obvious love of them.
Which brings us to the characters. First of all, Queequeg, the cannibal – who, despite the fact that he gets scarcely any dialogue at all, has become not only my favorite character from Moby Dick, but one of my new favorite characters of all time, ranking somewhere amid the eclectic company of Claude Frollo, Javert, Aureliano Buendia, Denethor, Ivan Karamazov, Sherlock Holmes, Lord Henry, Yama-Dharma, and Faust.
The first thing Queequeg does, after smoking his harpoon and undressing to reveal his strong, dark, tattooed, and comely form, is to jump into bed with Ishmael; whereupon Ishmael screams a bit, and then they sleep together. Yes: "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian," Ishmael tells us. Not figuratively, alas – at least, not that Melville cares to admit – but at least the two men certainly sleep, and they certainly are together, in one bed and under one shared blanket; and in the morning Ishmael wakes up in Queequeg's snug and loving embrace.
Not long afterward, Ishmael decides to commend himself to Queequeg's trust by joining him in the heathen worship of his little ebony idol, Yojo. "I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." And so they begin staying up late at night talking together in bed, sharing Queequeg's tomahawk pipe, and occasionally being slept on by one another. Queequeg soon pronounces them "married" ("meaning, in his country's phrase, that we were bosom friends"). Oh my god, Melville, you deliciously queer man. The number of uses of such phrases in application to Ishmael and his cannibal companion, "man and wife," "married," "a cozy loving pair," "in our heart's honeymoon, lay Queequeg and I," and so on... my god! And Ishmael, though he still calls himself a Christian, never has any thought of converting Queequeg, or of altering one hair of his nearly-shaven scalp: he accepts and respects him exactly as he is; and Queequeg, though not a man who seems to need the approval or acceptance of anyone, takes him as a friend. I don't even need to read slash about these boys. It's all over the damned pages of the book already.
Now, when Queequeg was introduced, I imagined I could guess what would be done with him – that he would sacrifice himself in some noble way, to save Ishmael, probably, or to save someone else, maybe someone more prejudiced and "Christian," to demonstrate the goodness of the "savage" races and put to route the white man's belief in his own superiority. But I was wrong. Melville was much more subtle than that. Oh, Queequeg had his heroic moments, and he did save a couple of lives; but he did it so indifferently that it hardly seemed like heroism at all. He never had any great moment, any single powerful instance of redemption or kindness or charity; he remained Queequeg all along, a reticent, sober, but willing harpooner, and never fell into any sort of stereotyped role. Over time, his presence dwindled on the pages, and by the end he was simply one of many, and faded away with the rest.
Then there's Ahab. I had expected Ahab to be my favorite character, based on my prior knowledge of the story; but in fact I never particularly cared about him. There seemed to me something too petty about his vendetta against this old white whale who took off his leg. How many whales have you killed, Captain, and why shouldn't Moby Dick have his little vengeance against you for all his slaughtered brethren? Why should you lead a whole crew of men into probable doom, ignoring every ill omen, challenging and defying God himself, the storms, the lightning, the whirling compasses, all because of one stupid leg?
And yet, in Ahab's strange soliloquies, there seem to be many hints that Ahab's monomania has nothing to do with Moby Dick or his leg at all. That, rather, losing his leg was the last straw for a man who had been toting bales around for many, many years; a man just waiting for the moment when he could finally snap and go tilting at windmills, any old windmills, any concrete illusion of some sort of living purpose, mission, aim, end; any possible reason to be and to shout I am. The whale presented himself. But Ahab's rage is not really against Moby Dick; again and again he vents his fury in the novel, and it is always against God: a rage over the plight of man, a hopeless creature doomed to damnation; a rage over all the daft cheerfulness of the world insensible of its own decay; a rage over his own frail human form and advancing, wasted years. He is determined to be a god, to be invincible, to challenge heaven; he calls the wind a coward for failing to manifest in an assailable form; the whole ocean seems one vast maddening mockery to him. Moby Dick is simply the one hated thing he can actually sink a spear into, since God will not come down and fight fairly, but shrouds himself in sun and cloud, a distant and indifferent father.
And in this light, I do like Ahab. His plight reminds me somewhat of Claude Frollo's, who also projected and focused his madness onto one object, a gypsy dancer, even though his real struggle was all an internal one, the result of a lifetime's suppression, superstition, devotion, desperate and faltering faith. Moby Dick was Esmeralda, angel and devil, temptation and salvation, embodied in a living form. I suppose there is something suggestive in the fact that, whereas Claude Frollo went after a supple young dancing girl, Ahab went after a giant Dick full of sperm... Ahem.
There was also Starbuck, almost the sole representative of genuine Christian well-intentioned reservation. He was the only man on board who ever challenged Ahab; but he backed down almost at once, and in spite of all the omens and prophesies, and his own certainty of the wrongness of their course, he never really stood up for what he believed. He leveled a rifle at Ahab once, pondering on morality and God's will; but he couldn't fire. He was a faltering, irresolute man, maybe even a bit of a coward, or at least too obedient for his own good; but for all that he was only the more believable and human, and he was one of my favorites. I really thought Starbuck would make it home in the end. But no.
The end surprised me completely. I knew Ahab would die, of course; that had been foreshadowed from the earliest chapters. But I really thought he would manage to take the whale down with him. And I had no thought that the entire ship would be lost, and the whole crew, Pip, Perth, Tashtego, Daggoo, Stubb, Flask – good heavens. I had expected Ahab to meet his own deserved end, taking a few of his men down with him, maybe, and for the rest to sail back in ambivalent pity and rage at him, cursing him and praying for him all at once. But no. There were no last words, no last thoughts or apologies or revelations: just sudden, unglorified death. Never have I seen a 19th century novel so ready with stark, dark doom, all unencumbered by ponderous eulogy. "Groan nor laugh should be heard before a wreck," says Ahab; and Ishmael our scribe takes the captain's advice, and lets the story stand on its own, far bleaker without the frills of lamentation. Even in modern fiction, I've encountered few such dismal endings.
I have only a few small complaints about the novel, the foremost of which is Ishmael's impossible omniscience. I don't understand how it is that he keeps telling us exactly what every member of the crew is thinking or saying at any given moment, whether that crew member is alone in the captain's cabin or away on one of the whaling boats. Overall, I like Ishmael as a narrator, and I think the choice to write the story from a first-person perspective was a good one; but there must have been some better way to convey all those scenes apart from presuming so much upon Ishmael's telepathic powers.
My other complaint is about the dialogue. The majority of it is absurd, either because it attempts to do the job of the narrative, telling the reader what the speaker and everyone around him is doing, as well as what he's actually saying; or else because it attempts to do the job of internal monologue. I'm used to these weird conventions in 19th century fiction, and usually they don't bother me much, but in a work like Moby Dick, otherwise so straightforward, they were rather jarring. Some of Ahab's soliloquies were excellent, carefully metered and eloquent as playwright's work, compelling one to read them aloud and listen to the cadence of the words -- but still I think I would have preferred something less pretty and more believable.
So. I'm assuming that anyone reading this very long and spoilery commentary has already read the novel, but if you haven't, well, I'd still strongly recommend it. The plot is one thing, and I guess if you've read this then you know most of it now; but Moby Dick is not the sort of flat novel that can be summed up by its plot, or even by its characters. It is absolutely profuse with little gems of phrases and thoughts and philosophies, some which could have been made to fill whole novels, but were instead tossed off as carelessly as Wildean quips. And then there's all the bloody business of whaling: strange, gruesome, and unexpectedly fascinating. Let Stephen King stand aside: I have never read any fictional death as violent and gorily repulsive as that of the first whale killed in Moby Dick. And then Ishmael sneaks behind the mainmast to nibble on some of the purplish, mottled, fleshy globules sticking to the blubber! Agh!
He also has a very intimate scene with a vat of spermaceti and the submerged hands of his fellow whalers. God, you guys. This is such a weird book. "Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!"
Now I understand why 2addersfanged wanted me to write Melville/Hawthorne slash. But you know... I'm not sure Hawthorne deserves the honor. In any case, Melville: my hat is off to you, sir. My hat is plucked straight from my head and deposited somewhere in the vast Pacific. You are a strange and wonderful man.