Reviewing the classics is a really hard thing to do. Decades, sometimes centuries of readers have analyzed, criticized, perused, read, re-read, got inspiration from and loved these books. One feels a bit overwhelmed when attempting to give a personal opinion on a masterpiece such as Moby Dick. It would be wise to leave these tasks to the professionals. BUT I’m by no means wise, reading this book is something I’ve wanted to do for ages, and now that the “mad and most desperate study“ is done, I’m extremely excited to share my thoughts with you.
Moby Dick is a story of unredeemable despair. Captain Ahab’s quest to find the white whale reminds me of the passion of another literary hero of ancient times:
“‘not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty
toward my agèd father, nor the love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad,
‘could overcome the fervor that was mine
to gain experience of the world
and learn about man’s vices, and his worth.”
However, what moves Ahab is not Ulysses’ curiosity, but vengeance without compromises, a blind mission that can only end in death for him and those around him, even if this means that he’s leaving behind a young wife who loves him, along with their newborn child. His folly knows no religion, no affection and no devotion other than to the God of vengeance. He thinks he will kill the beast, but as the story progresses and becomes bleaker and devoid of hope, the reader starts to understand how it is going to end. The signs are all there, it’s like watching a movie and seeing the killer approach his victim silently. You can only hold your breath and ride it out, there’s no use screaming, no use trying to alert them. Ahab is doomed, and you know it from the moment of the first encounter with Elijah, the prophet, who warns Ishmael against joining the Pequod. The book is so thick with symbolism that if you’re interested in a more detailed analysis it is worth reading books like “A companion to Herman Melville” or “Why read Moby Dick?“.
The body of the Pequod’s narration is structured along the lines of other great books of the past (for some reason Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron come to my mind): a series of twelve gams, encounters with other ships. The first encounter gives no useful information regarding the whereabouts of the white whale, but as the story proceeds, each gam takes them closer to the killer monster. The 12th ship they encounter is in extremely bad shape after unsuccessfully fighting the beast. This is another turning point where the reader understands what’s happening: the first ship was intact, the twelfth was half destroyed… which means that the Pequod will suffer even a more nefarious fate, it will be the one to sink, complete the picture of increasing ruin. So there you are, sitting with Melville’s masterpiece, saying to yourself “there is no way this is going to end well“. And it doesn’t. Spoiler alert, everyone dies except for Ishmael, who’s telling the story. Ironically, he survives by hanging to an empty coffin, another cluster of symbolism I’m not even going to attempt to explore.
I do confess I read this book in its most beautiful Italian translation by Cesare Pavese, and this is the translation I recommend to anyone who would like to read it in Italian. The English version, with its profuseness of maritime and whaling terms, was too much even for me.
Which brings us to the conclusion of my review, which is also the answer to the question I’m always asked about Moby Dick: “Should I read it, is it any good?”. Well, yes and no. What I found is that people either hate or love Moby Dick, there is no middle ground. Even D.H. Lawrence, who defined it a masterpiece, also wrote that “Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. […] One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!”. For some people, threading through pages and pages about the anatomy of the whale, the taxonomy and the techniques of whaling just feels like work. Some editors publish abridged versions with the boring bits cut out. Some people love the whole thing so much that they organize monthly reading groups so they can read and re-read it. Some say that – as many other great masterpieces – Moby Dick gets better when it is re-read. It is probably true, but I haven’t tested that affirmation myself.
What I do know is that it is a must read if you are a book lover. It is a story so popular, so entrenched in people’s collective imagination, that you cannot avoid putting it on your reading list.
So that you can wear T-shirts like this.