This post is part of a new series called GOAT: greatest of all time. In it, I’ll discuss a favorite book, album, or other work. GOAT posts will normally come during weeks when I’m traveling and don’t have the bandwidth for a full post.
First up in the GOAT series is Moby Dick.
My brother chose Moby Dick for his senior thesis and it quickly spread to the rest of the family. It’s since become one of my favorites, for reasons discussed below. I hope you enjoy this summary, and, if you dive into the great book, reach out as it lends itself to discussion.
“One of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.” These eleven words from D.H. Lawrence epitomize Moby Dick. It is an odd little epic. A work of contrast that floats between realism, nonfiction, and near-verse as it speaks of the sea and the mind’s wanderings through its depths.
For years, this book loomed in my mind. An insurmountable task. America’s longest, greatest work that, someday, I would fail to read. Upon opening it, I was surprised and delighted to find the humor and pace with which Melville lights his novel.
The language, though full of unusual sentence structure and colloquialisms, often warms with humble simplicity. In a favorite early chapter, “A Bosom Friend”, Melville comments with wry affection on his unlikely friendship with the cannibal Queequeg--“a cosy, loving pair.” In another, the aptly named “Of The Monstruous Pictures of Whales,” Melville roasts the whale enthusiasts that preceded him. One particularly unlucky fellow, Culver, gets a large serving: “in a word, Culver’s Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash.”
When he’s not laughing with the reader, Melville winds out long romantic sentences that evoke the awe and horror we witness in face of nature.
“… as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night… then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.”
Outside of his humor and bizarre (yet endearing) prose, Herman’s masterpiece is labeled as such because of its ability to find in nature’s infinite scale the small details of relative analogy. Though named after the pursuit of Ahab, the vindictive captain who seeks the whale that took his leg, the book is less about chasing a whale and more about what do when you don’t have a whale to chase.
Its narrator–“Call me Ishmael”–is the sort to find himself lost in the “blending cadence of waves with thoughts,” staring into the “deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature.” Ishmael is an introvert.
This contrast, the monomaniacal, bloodthirsty Ahab and the aimless, uninterested Ishmael, frames the book’s main subject: the paradox of the human condition. That is, if I truly know what I want, and am willing to go to any lengths to get it, I’m the mad man, being dragged into the deep; overhead, “the great shroud of the sea [rolls] on as it rolled on five thousand years ago.” If I look for introspective meaning, I’m just “another orphan,” floating “in manhood’s pondering repose of If.”
And in the midst of Melville’s crisis of existence, we have no eye for how soon it will all be over. This, Melville says, is the tragedy that we share. “All men live enveloped in whale lines.”