Classic adventure novel, micro-history of whaling, gay love story
Content warning: mental illness, racism, animal cruelty
My very good friend Annie bought me this stunning edition as a gift probably close to two years ago. A deep blue hardcover with the most incredible silver foil embellishments, the front has an iconic and stylised whale’s tail, and the back has a ship sailing beneath a silver full moon. And the pages. The pages. Tinted edges so silver that they are reflective. This is an incredibly beautiful book, but this novel intimidated me for some time. Firstly, because it is long: over 600 pages of nautical text. Secondly, because I still feel guilty for losing a copy of this book when I borrowed it from the library as a teen many years ago. However, it had been glinting on my bookshelf long enough. Maybe encouraged by the similarly beautiful “Saga Land“, I decided it was finally time.
This is likely going to be somewhat controversial, but I’m just going to go for it. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville is three books in one.
Firstly, it is an adventure story about a man styling himself as Ishmael who, after starting to feel depressed, decides to mix things up and join a whale hunt. Having previously sailed on merchant ships, his experience is enough to get him signed up but not enough to achieve any particular responsibilities. Aboard the Pequod, Ishmael finally catches a glimpse of the dark and mysterious Captain Ahab, and soon learns of his obsession with seeking revenge against the white whale known as Moby Dick who bit off his leg on a previous voyage. As the journey continues, the narrative flicks between Ishmael and Ahab, and Ahab’s fixation on hunting Moby Dick leads him to take more and more risks.
Secondly, it is a micro-history about the whaling industry. Interspersed throughout the novel, Melville (ostensibly through the voice of Ishmael) provides the reader with detailed explanations of the particulars of whaling, how it’s done and what the materials obtained from whaling are used for. These rather clinical descriptions are contrasted against Ishmael’s observations of whaling generally, showing the reader the extent of the profit, cruelty and waste that stems from whaling. Melville goes into minute detail about the types of ropes and weapons used, how the whales are dissected for parts and what happens to their bodies after they are discarded.
Thirdly, this book is a queer interracial love story between Ishmael and a man called Queequeg from a fictional Pacific island nation. Ishmael and Queequeg meet when they are given the same bed in the same room at an inn to share by the inn-keeper. Quickly developing rapport, they agree to pool their resources and to travel together henceforth. If you think that reading this story as queer romance is an unreasonable interpretation of such a masculine adventure story, then I present to you the following:
This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied [with putting his tomahawk away and ceasing to smoke in bed], and again politely motioned me to get into bed – rolling over to one side as much as to say – I wont touch a leg of ye. “Good night landlord,” said I, “you may go.” I turned in, and never slept better in my life.
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.
Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning, I thought this indifference of his very strange.
…but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he look please, perhaps a little complimented.
He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and as unbidden 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 supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He…took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine.
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 until nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.
We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine…
He at once resolved to accompany to that island, ship aboard the same vessel, get into the same watch, the same boat, the same mess with me, in short to share my every hap; with both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.
On the occasion in question, Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a skirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage; and no one had a better chance to observe him, as will presently be seen.
I rest my case.
Anyway, on to the review. This book almost defies reviews. It is both very funny (the preacher climbing a pulpit made of whale ribs pulling up the ladder behind him) and very boring. It is full of interesting facts, dull facts and erroneous facts (Melville decides that despite being warm-blooded and lactating with a horizontal tail, whales are a type of fish). It is both very progressive (Queequeg is given a higher wage than Ishmael due to his skills and experience), and racist (Queequeg is frequently referred to as a savage), with a range of characters of different races, some more likable and stereotyped than others.
The eponymous character Moby Dick barely features in the novel at all. Melville switches from soliloquy to omniscient third person to theatrical dialogue without any care whatsoever for consistency. Ishmael is both mysterious and dramatic, hinting at experiencing bouts of manic and depressive episodes, high education and low income, a possibly teaching background and, later, and telling his tales to a bevy of handsome young men in Italy.
I probably enjoyed Ahab’s chapters the least, because they were mostly of him muttering under his breath beneath the moonlight, weighing up between hunting Moby Dick and REALLY hunting Moby Dick while chief mate Starbuck looks on grimly. The whale hunts themselves were both fascinating and awful, the whales suffering incredibly while Ishmael provides technical commentary on exactly the way they die. The other characters were a motley bunch with second mate Stubb a firm favourite, especially while pushing the sailors on in the whaleboats with equal parts insult and encouragement in a very amusing tone.
How do you review a book like this? It’s excellent and terrible in almost equal measures. This is a book full of contradictions that, nearly 170 years after publication, still gives readers a lot to think about and plenty to discuss.