Mike Krzos is an old buddy of mine – we car-pooled to our rocket-scientist jobs for about two years. You get a lot of time to know someone, an hour each way. One of our biggest (and standing) arguments was about the novel Moby Dick. I reviewed it HERE. Now it’s Mike’s turn…
Moby Dick. Every person claims to know the story. An obsessive madman, a madman with one leg, possessed by his obsession to the ends of sanity and, presumably, the end of his life. Moby Dick is not a story however, it is a work of art. Just as Rubens’ “David Slaying Goliath” is more than the sum of a painting of a boy at odds with a giant.
The rich tapestry begins strictly as narrative. It lands you directly into the sea-salt laden air and greyed wooden clapboards of 19th century New England. New Bedford becomes a character as rich as Ishmael. Set among this backdrop, the symbolic imagery of Father Mapple’s sermon reveals the majesty of the prose that haunts the rest of the book. Somber in tone, surrounded by imagery of the sea, even focusing on the biblical tale of Jonah, the Father’s sermon prepares the reader, almost as a prologue, for the journey ahead.
The tale is told through the experiences of a 19th century whaling vessel. While some readers balk at the dissertations regarding the minutia of shipboard mechanics and cetacean observation, these descriptions paint the setting of this work. The Pequod is not a vague ideal of a 19th century vessel, but becomes a real working ship. A ship that the reader lives on, works on, and sleeps on, alongside her crew. The reader knows how the hunt unfolds, understands the risks of the chase, and filths themselves in the mess of the post hunt processing.
Among all this exquisite detail, Melville washes over the reader with prophetic imagery reminiscent of mythology. For me, however, it is the resplendent prose that is the work’s seduction. The best way to describe this genius is by example, as when Ahab addressed his first mate
“The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. ‘Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung. “