Why Moby-Dick and I Will Never Get Along

Right, this book is supposed to be a classic, one of those novels everyone has to read. For me, I just didn’t get it.

I’m in my second year of university (or college as you Americans would say) and we’ve just spent two weeks studying it. But I still haven’t read it cover to cover; I physically can’t. I was excited to be studying it. I remember watching the film Matilda when I was little, about a girl who is intelligent for her age, and discovers she has these powers that mean she can make objects move with her mind. Her favourite book is Moby-Dick and ever since I was little, I thought to myself “I want to read this book”. I could not have been more disappointed.

The general storyline, for those of you who don’t know, is the story of a man named Ishmael, or so we believe. The first sentence of the book is “Call me Ishmael” and that instantly makes us question whether that is his true name. As I was saying, Ishmael has been to sea before but never as a whaler, and wants to try it out. He spends a night at an inn and has to share a bedroom with another man, Queequeg, who has a shocking appearance and is covered in tattoos. They get a ferry to Nantucket, the capital of the whaling industry, and gain places on the Pequod, a ship captained by a man named Ahab. The story follows their life onboard and their attempt to capture the great whale, Moby-Dick.

To start with, I don’t have any interest in whaling or sailing, perhaps why I found the book so dull. Moby-Dick is known for its boring parts. Melville treats us (how lucky we are) to the history and cetology of whales, classification of whales, breeds of whales, descriptions of whales practically from their heads to their tails. These kinds of descriptions literally take up pages and pages of the novel. Perhaps they are necessary but they are long and tedious.

Usually, I have backup strategies for reading a hard book (perhaps that should be my next blog post!) and these include:

  • Find a summary online; it is a lot easier to read a hard book when you know what it coming.
  • Watch the film version if you can find a decent copy/edition close to the text (this helps massively when attempting Shakespeare).
  • Find out a bit more about the author and their background before proceeding.

For Moby-Dick, not a single one of these worked. I still found it hard, tedious and, most importantly, boring. Melville attempts various writing styles, which, to me, makes it seem like Melville couldn’t quite decide on what kind of book he wanted it to be. He clearly knew what he was doing while writing, he’s not stupid, but to me, it just doesn’t work. There is one sentence in Chapter 42 that is 471 WORDS LONG. We also have various points of view, but it is never made entirely clear who the narrator has become.

  • Ishmael as narrator; there are certain chapters when we KNOW Ishmael is narrating. Chapter 41: “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew”.
  • First person narrator that is probably Ishmael, but can be uncertain. Chapter 45: “I have personally known…”
  • Third person narrator such as Chapter 44.
  • Dramatic style that reads like a play. Chapter 40.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this flitting between form can become tiring.

If anyone would like to explain to me why this book is so incredible, please post me your comments and I’ll try to understand what all the fuss is about, but so far, not even in my top 100.

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