How does one even begin to write a “review” of Moby Dick, especially if one has a particularly dubious history with this classic? (If anyone cares to read more about my “history” with this novel, feel free to visit my blog post: https://bibliocurio.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/on-readerly-identity/.) It has taken me a really long time to write this review because there is at once so much to say and nothing to say.
One of the many reasons I avoided this book after my initial negative reaction was my lack of interest in Ahab’s obsession with vengeance on Moby Dick. To my surprise, this story actually doesn’t take up much of the book. It is one of the only plot points in an otherwise rather directionless novel, so that must be why the book is described as the story of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, and of course the book is held together with this thread. But I was surprised by how much time Ahab spends brooding in his quarters, and by how often this would happen: a ship would come by, Ahab would ask if they had seen the whale, they would say no, then he would just snort and them and disappear, after which the story of that ship would be told nevertheless. I’m sure this could be really annoying to some readers, but I enjoyed it. Similarly, there is a lot of Melville “philosophizing,” which apparently led to the book’s initial commercial failure. Among Melville’s many ruminations, my favorite was the assertion that all killing of animals is murder, and all humans cannibals. While there is no implication in the passage that people should not eat meat, there is a strong argument throughout the book that humans should certainly recognize the violence and sacrifice (both human and animal) involved in the eating and use of animal materials (including whale oil and sperm).
For me, Melville is at his best when writing humor (and yes, there is a lot of humor in the book) and really strange, ominous, gothic imagery. Some of the ominous moments that will stick with me from this book: the graveless tombstones of the many New Bedford sailors lost at sea, the Pequod ponderously moving along with the head of a whale strapped to either side of the ship, the sound of sharks bumping recklessly against the side of the ship in a frenzy of feeding on a whale carcass, the witchcraft-like ceremony in which Ahab solicits the sailors’ allegiance in killing Moby Dick. These moments convince me of Melville’s Romanticism, despite the modernist heteroglossia and mixture of genres that also make the book fascinating and challenging at once.
I feel that rating a book like Moby Dick is a somewhat ridiculous endeavor, and if it’s undertaken, should probably only result in either a one-star or a five-star rating: it should elicit only the strongest feelings. Even so, I’m assigning four stars, because even though I liked the book very much and am glad I read it, I have to admit that I balked every time I sat down to read a little, which means I am happy I read it but didn’t always enjoy the experience of reading it.