Adventures in Bookland: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Fellow readers of Moby-Dick, I call upon you to answer truthfully, hand-on-heart, the following question: did you really read Moby-Dick? You’re sure? All of it? Every…single…word? I must admit, I did not. I started off, with some considerable pleasure, enjoying the sonorous turn of phrase, each sentence imbued with the cadences of what I suspect must have been many hours spent by Melville listening to the sermoninising of 19th-century preachers – there is a music to that, which comes across on the page. But, I must admit, the pleasure, after 50 or so pages, turned to dutifulness, although the dutifulness was rewarded when Captain Ahab finally made his belated entrance to the story, hobbling on deck with his whale bone false leg and the stern prophetic utterances of a mad Elijah. The  problem is, however, that there isn’t that much of Captain Ahab, or the tattooed Red Indian harpooneer Queequeg, or the other characters, while there is a huge amount about 19th-century whaling, the whale-oil industry, thoughts on cetacean biology and assorted other topics that drag on for page after page after page after page… By page 200 I was skipping pages. By page 250 I was skipping chapters. By the end, I just wanted it all to end – which it does, in unseemly haste after all the build up.  I can imagine, when it was first published, the ending must have come as a tremendous shock to readers: that Ahab should fail, that the spirit of the untamed deep should destroy the progressive works of 19th-century Man and all the crew, must have been totally unexpected. But it surely takes an awfully long time to get there. However, in Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick (how many people remember that the name should be hyphenated? I certainly did not), Melville created two extraordinary characters, who linger in memory long after the turgid passages of explication have slipped away like receding waves: Ahab remains, granite, stern, wave washed but unbowed, and the Whale looms above him.



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