Saturday, February 6, 2010

moby dick i

Moby-Dick or The Whale, was written by Herman Melville as one of a series of novels, loosely based on his travels as a sailor earlier in his life. And while the earlier stories, such as Typee and Omoo, were more embellished autobiography, Moby-Dick--started 5 years or so later than these earlier works--is merely informed by Melville's experiences at sea.

What got me from the beginning, is the surprising style and the humor, which I was not expecting. Moby-Dick is written in first-person ("Call me Ishmael"), and the narrator quickly draws the reader into the seamy world of 19th century whaling in Nantucket; complete with salty dialect, observations of the characters that pervade the whaling trade; written in an expositional, almost diaristic fashion. Our Ishmael seems to chatter on about just about anything that catches his fancy, turns his head, or worries his soul. To a point where, the chapter structure is very much like entries in a journal, and seems to focus on not only moving the story forward, but in some cases, pausing to look at certain subjects more carefully. These pauses in the narrative, however, rather than slowing it down, actually seem to be building tension, laying the groundwork, and keying up the dread that is sure to come when the great leviathan eventually does arrive.

Some of these chapters are essays in and of themselves, on various related subjects, and include a treatise on the classification of whales and their relative value to the Nantucket whaler; various in-depth studies of characters in the story (think Henry James); and most recently, a discussion of the "Whiteness of the Whale" and how it is the very whiteness of the beast that is most appalling and inspires such dread. This chapter goes on for 8 pages, and points out all of those other things that are white, which inspire feelings of purity and cleanliness, from brides, to angels, to sacrificial animals, set against the whiteness of the terrible polar bear and great white shark, which by their very violation of these feelings of purity, more deeply trouble us as aberrations. Ishmael seems to be whispering, his eyes agog: 'Just think about it. Its weird, right?'

These pauses are typically short, some only a page long, and rather than detract, I think that they are slowly building tension in the story, and dread for the whale, which is indeed beginning to rise to an almost mythical stature in my mind. The popularity of Moby-Dick, since not long after it was written, has given the whale a mythic, pop-culture stature anyway, but only in this first third of the book, I feel as though I could be one of those old salts down at the Peter Coffin House, croaking about the terrible white whale, through the blue haze of pipe smoke and ale breath. Oh yeah, and then there's Ahab!

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