Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Moby Dick is a many faceted novel. It has long sections which serve solely to educate the reader about the taxonomy and anatomy of whales and reads like a naturalist’s field book for an audience which would have no other means to visualize these enormous creatures. There are historical and economic essays on the role of whaling in society. Essays on vessels, equipment and crew with long passages about the life and duties of the whaler. Exacting strategies of landing a whale and method of processing its bulk, along with yields, storage and maintenance. But intertwined with all of the exposition, Herman Melville has incorporated a philosophical, introspective, adventure story with some surprising social commentary for a book published in 1851.
In the tenth chapter we have the marriage of Queequeg and Ishmael, both male characters. Some passages are merely suggestive, such as their union in the Innkeepers wedding bed, and some of the more genial bed play. Some are more overt.
He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…
After which Queequeg divides his belongings and gives half to Ishmael. And again,
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.
Melville also interjects some surprisingly subversive religious opinions. When trying to convince the Quaker owners of the Pequod to allow Queequeg on board, Ishmael argues:
I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join hands.
Or this curious portion of their wedding where Ishmael considers his participation in idol worship.
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I… to do the will of God–THAT is worship. And what is the will of God?–to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me–THAT is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.
Finally, and perhaps my favorite rumination concludes several reflections on man’s violence to one another.
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?
Herman Melville’s work is full of complex and beautiful prose, and so much more than the simple revenge story I assumed it to be. Moby Dick is an accurate depiction of the knowledge of the natural sciences – and a window into social and religious consciousness of the 1850s.
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