In one sentence: I can't emphasize enough how good this book is.
This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
What an absolutely amazing book. From the moment when you meet Queequeg, and the absurd scene with the native, I knew this was going to be a great book. Melville has an amazing ability to render every moment in beautiful, poetic language, while at the same time presenting a scene of humor, or tragedy, or absurdity. There seems to be nothing that he can't write about, and write about beautifully at that.
While moments where Melville delves deeply into the natural history of whales, or into the specifics of whaling, may seem dry or unnecessary, I think they are absolutely critical to the work. Even with the modern conveniences of the internet, the subject of sperm whales, and whaling in general is still something of a mystery to me (and I imagine for most modern readers). It is also absolutely critical that the reader has a deep understanding of this subject in order to appreciate the gravity of the situation that Ishmael and his fellows face in there ill-fated search for Moby Dick. Therefore without these more clinical moments, I think the novel would have suffered greatly, despite their more dry nature.
This is particularly elucidated by the way Melville would contrast the nobility, honor, and courage of whaling with the baseness of what they obtained from the whale (candle wax and women's corsets as an example.) Or with the way he contrasted the beauty, mysterious whale with the cruel and unfeeling way in which they were dispatched. This is especially true of the first time they kill and "process" a sperm whale immediately after he spent pages praising the creatures.
It would be easy to claim it is merely some "modern sophistication" that allows readers now to understand that killing whales for these amenities is a bad thing to do, but it is clear in the very structure of the book that Melville agreed that it was a cruel endeavor. Yet, by also showing his understanding of the true courage among the sailors, he made his point stronger, not weaker. If he simply came forward with straightforward claims that "killing whales is wrong", no one would have listened. However, by presenting the truth about both whaling, whales, and the sailors, he allowed the reader to come to their own conclusions about the whales and the men that killed them. I cannot understate how impactful this was over the course of the book.
The ending, and the long pages that led up to it, were surprisingly tense. While nothing particularly eventful was happening, the sense that something was coming just around the corner in the pages leading up to the chase with Moby Dick were practically physical in their intensity. Fortunately, the chase with the White Whale, and the conclusion, lived up to this intensity with ease.
It was especially interesting how in their battle with Moby Dick they never even stood a chance. While with the other whales they rather easily harpooned and killed them, no amount of chasing, darting, and fighting with Moby Dick seemed to do any more than enrage him and cause him to utterly destroy them all. I do wonder if there is any meaning to him just driving forward leeward, and only attacking because of how they attacked him.
The simple ending is almost deceiving. Ahab fails. Everyone but Ishmael is killed, and Moby Dick escapes. There is literally nothing more to it than this. But there is so much to reflect upon, it's a good thing that Melville didn't dwell upon the ending any longer. Ahab, and his futile attempt to seek revenge. The whale, and all the unconquerable, infuriating, devastating aspects of life that he represents. The doomed sailors, innocent, yet unable to escape either the whirlpool of the sinking Pequod, or the equally deadly whirlpool of Ahab's obsession that came before it.
Even the very name of our narrator speaks volumes about what happened. Ishmael, the cast off son of Abraham, is the sole survivor of the Pequod and its endeavors. The name's significance is particularly important, I think, because he chose it. "Call me Ishmael", he says to open the book. Not "My name is" or "I am", but "Call me", as though his true name doesn't matter, and only this alias is relevant to the story that is about to be told.
I can't emphasize enough how good this book is. Yes, it has some slow moments, but these are not needless, useless moments. They all serve to build an understanding for the reader that surrounds and informs the actions of Ahab in his doomed quest for revenge. I recommend this without hesitation to everyone who loves to read.
Herman Melville the First Line of Moby-Dick
"But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this: "GRAND CONTESTED ELECTION FOR THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES. "WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL. "BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.""Herman Melville in Moby-Dick
"Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch, all betokening that new cruises were on the start; that one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort."Herman Melville in Moby-Dick
"'Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.'"Herman Melville in Moby-Dick
"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side."Herman Melville in Moby-Dick
Herman Melville the Last Line of in Moby-Dick