Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Moby Dick is a classic in the same way as a Rolls Royce. Everyone knows what it’s about. But few people these days have been in it and enjoyed the ride. And that’s a shame. Everyone knows that Moby Dick is about a white whale and a ship’s captain - Ahab - who is obsessed with killing it to wreak his terrible revenge. But as soon as you delve inside, it becomes clear that it’s about a whole lot more.

‘They might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory’. 

As so, Herman Melville warns his readers off considering his whale as an analogy. But he must have been playing for laughs. Almost every sentence, every chapter and the theme of the whole book is big scaffold of analogous meaning. Each page folds like Russian dolls into a wider web of meaning. It’s like... I’d say peeling an onion, but I don’t need to. Melville gave us a better metaphor to use; his chapters go through - often literally - every single layer of the whale until we get to the dark, vacuous, core of human obsession. 

And so it’s not so strange, that on reading it, I started to see my life in terms of whales. Because Melville finds he can describe all of life’s activities there. For example, describing how blubber coats whales to keep them warm in the icy waters of the arctic, Moby Dick pithily probes the protective armour that coats all of us, and keeps us apart.

For a book with ‘no plot’, Moby Dick has everything. From a touching treatment of homesexual love, to the basis for all moral law - Melville finds it all in the whaling industry. And then there is the book’s ‘mighty theme’ itself, the tale of one man’s destruction at the hands of his own fiendish obsession with killing a white whale - which suitably, sublimely could be a symbol for almost anything. As DH Lawrence said ‘I doubt if even Melville knew what’. 

This infinite interpretability, and symbolic richness often makes chapters seem to swoosh up to the heavens. It’s quite a mind-opening experience - one moment you are reading about the physical specifications of a whale skeleton and then suddenly your mind is tumbling and reeling, as Melville has laid bare some essential moment of the human condition in language that is now, all at once, abstract, biblical, symbolic and emphatic

I also enjoyed reading this book straight too. It’s an adventure story, with a twist on a car chase from before there were cars. And why whales? Perhaps Melville believe this was an undervalued occupation. And so his book is a ‘hymn to the art and practice of whaling’. This books stamps in the ground. Hell,  if big game hunting can have books written about it, why can’t whaling? A profession that used to light the world, that daily engages in brutal, dangerous struggle with the biggest beasts on earth. There might be no glamour in it, but can’t there be just a little romance?

And there’s so much more here too. The madness, the horror of it all - the utter brutality of killing these intelligent, noble mammals; could there be a better advocate for vegetarianism?

Moby Dick should be read slowly, and sipped. Each chapter does something - why not read one a day?


Moby Dick is available on Amazon - only £2!


  1. I confess I have never read Moby Dick, but your article makes me want to!

    Love your blog. :)