Having had my mental energy usurped by a recent upswing in the intensity of my day job, it seems the perfect time to reintroduce my critique of Moby Dick from my former web site. It is a two-parter; the first part is impressions of the first half of the book. The second part was written after finishing the novel.
Part I: Half way through Moby Dick
I found a free Kindle version of Moby Dick. Since I am a sucker for finding out what’s going on with the classics, this was a clear incentive to give it a try. I should make it plain that I am only half-way through at present.
Most people think Moby Dick is a long book, but it is actually three long books. The first is a whaling primer, complete with whale classifications, history, and even a couple of chapters on how whaling is depicted in the fine arts. The second book is a defense of the occupation against other mariners, and general society, who may be inclined to look down upon the whaling trade. The third, and smallest, book is a novel, generally touching upon the subject of whaling.
There may be an audience for each of these three books. Unfortunately, the books are all mixed up, hodgepodge, into one. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader takes a spoonful of whale-product pot luck without knowing into which of the three books he is delving.
It is common among pieces of 19th century literature to meander into unfortunate asides that interrupt the narrative. Consequently, I am willing to give some leeway on this point. But Melville takes the inch I give and turns it into a mile, educating me on many topics about which I would just as soon remain ignorant, if I could save an hour by doing so. He spent a chapter explaining what’s wrong with the color white.
The storytelling itself (when it can be unearthed) suffers from a major point-of-view problem that would brand any modern author an untutored novice. Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, one of the crew of the ship. It does not take long for Ishmael to flee his own skin and flit about as a fly on the wall in places where his body is not present. The narrator describes scenes that Ishmael is in no position to see. Heartened by this omnipotent superpower, the narrator jumps into the heads of Ahab and his three ship’s officers to give us a glimpse of their most intimate thoughts.
You may be asking yourself, “Why has this dolt kept reading, if he finds so many problems with this book?” The answer is that there is one truly bright spot I hope will blossom in the second half.
In the actual narrative portions, when the story is really being told from the first-person, the prose is rather engaging. Melville’s style can be quite charming, as it was for almost three chapters in a row, in between sessions of Whaling 101 class. I’m hoping the last half of the book contains more of this type storytelling and less instruction and thought-reading.
I will continue reading, hoping that Ishmael is satisfied I’m now trained to competently follow the story of a fictitious whaling expedition. If I can also satisfy him that I want a chronicler of events as he experiences them, rather than a mind reader who presents me with every character’s thoughts, we may just be able to get along until the end.