As one of my New Years resolutions, I'm finally getting around to reading Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, and it's about time. I've attempted the long slog on several occasions in the past, but never made it past the sermon that takes place in the Nantucket chapel (like 30 pages in-I know, it's sad), but I've always been fascinated with the whaling industry. Like Ishmael, I'm to the sea and the adventure that awaits thereon:
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure..... Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle , and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”This time around, I think I'm going to make it through, and I recommend that you read this book. Once you get through the chapters that expound upon the anatomy of the whale, or the listing of seemingly every literary reference to whales, it is quite the rollicking adventure. And it is surprisingly funny.
For example, during the “first lowering” (when the sailors lower the smaller whale boats from the larger ship—the Pequod—to chase and harpoon the whales), Ishmael’s whale boat gets lost in a storm and separated from the others. The small boat is tossed around violently (described as if an earthquake) but the boat and its passengers survive. They sit in the flooded boat until dawn, unable to find any other whale boat or the larger ship in the thick fog. Suddenly, they hear the creaking of the Pequod and see it barreling toward them from the mist. The sailors bail into the ocean and the Pequod crashes into and destroys the small whale boat.
When Ishmael is finally pulled aboard the larger ship, he begins questioning his friend and the ship’s officers—and you can just imagine how frantic and upset Ishmael must be:
"Queequeg," said I, when they had dragged me, the last man, to the deck, and I was still shaking myself in my jacket to fling off the water; "Queequeg, my fine friend, does this sort of thing often happen?" Without much emotion, though soaked through just like me, he gave me to understand that such things did often happen.
"Mr. Stubb," said I, turning to that worthy, who, buttoned up in his oil-jacket, was now calmly smoking his pipe in the rain; "Mr. Stubb, I think I have heard you say that of all whalemen you ever met, our chief mate, Mr. Starbuck, is by far the most careful and prudent. I suppose then, that going plump on a flying whale with your sail set in a foggy squall is the height of a whaleman's discretion?"
"Certain. I've lowered for whales from a leaking ship in a gale off Cape Horn."
"Mr. Flask," said I, turning to little King-Post, who was standing close by; "you are experienced in these things, and I am not. Will you tell me whether it is an unalterable law in this fishery, Mr. Flask, for an oarsman to break his own back pulling himself back-foremost into death's jaws?"
"Can't you twist that smaller?" said Flask. "Yes, that's the law. I should like to see a boat's crew backing water up to a whale face foremost. Ha, ha! the whale would give them squint for squint, mind that!"
It was a laugh-out-loud moment for me, and the story is rife with similar humor. So far, the deeper I get into the story, the more I understand what made this book an American classic. Aside from the melodrama, it captures the unknown vastness of the sea, the brutality and violence of the whaling industry, and the horrors that lurk not only beneath the surface of the ocean, but within the human psyche.
Here then, from three impartial witnesses, I had a deliberate statement of the entire case. Considering, therefore, that squalls and capsizings in the water and consequent bivouacks on the deep, were matters of common occurrence in this kind of life; considering that at the superlatively critical instant of going on to the whale I must resign my life into the hands of him who steered the boat- oftentimes a fellow who at that very moment is in his impetuousness upon the point of scuttling the craft with his own frantic stampings; considering that the particular disaster to our own particular boat was chiefly to be imputed to Starbuck's driving on to his whale almost in the teeth of a squall, and considering that Starbuck, notwithstanding, was famous for his great heedfulness in the fishery; considering that I belonged to this uncommonly prudent Starbuck's boat; and finally considering in what a devil's chase I was implicated, touching the White Whale: taking all things together, I say, I thought I might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will."
So tell me, have you read Moby-Dick? What did you think?