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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 31 May 2019

"Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville

This is the great American novel. What makes it great?

My sister was impressed. She called it "magnificently insane", "ridiculously wordy" and described Ishmael, the narrator, as "a Don Quixote figure". By these comments she meant that it was one of the best books she had read.

It is not a modern novel. It makes no sense to criticise in terms of what we expect a novel to be. In a modern novel, in English literature since about the time of Henry James, the characters have driven the novel. It was different in earlier times. Melville published Moby-Dick (the hyphen is only ever found in the title and one presumes was a typo by the printer of the first edition) in 1851; in this year Uncle Tom's Cabin began serialization and Mrs Gaskell published Cranford; Charles Dickens was in between David Copperfield and Bleak House; Balzac had just died. This was a time of big books and epic stories; it was a time of romantic ideas.

So I couldn't expect anything in the way of a character arc. The characters aren't even rounded in the E M Forster sense (see his Aspects of the Novel) While some of the characters debate (Starbuck, Ahab etc) soliloquise from time to time (To do or not to do) they remain flat and fail to progress anywhere. Thus we have the wonderful caricatures of Ahab (monomaniacal throughout: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.”; C 37)  , Starbuck, Stubb, Flask and Queequeeg as well as minor characters such as Peleg but no characters in the modern sense. As Jane Smiley says in 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, "Ishmael's own personality and fate are very little explored ... the novel is not about character transformation. ... It is Ahab ... who becomes the main focus of the narrative, but his character is no more transformed than Ishmael's."  In this way Moby-Dick is more of an epic than a novel. Only the narrator, Ishmael, seems to be a character and he disappears almost as soon as he boards ship.

The narration starts from the point of view of Ishmael as he explores New Bedford and Nantucket in his attempt to be hired on board a whaling ship. But the moment the ship sets sail, the narration switches to that of the omniscient narrator. He overhears things people say when they are on their own. He is privileged to record thoughts. He discourses with academic precision on the character of whales, their anatomy, their history. Parts of the narrative are rendered in the style of playscripts. Although he sometimes refers to himself during this narration, he isn't really part of it. He properly returns only for the epilogue.

I agree with my sister Jane that it is wordy. This is partly because Melville packs in his research: there are chapters on the types of whales, and on the anatomy of whales, and on the uses of whale-oil, and many chapters devoted to the business of capturing whales and then extracting their oil. These add verisimilitude and I correctly assumed that Melville had sailed on whalers. But these insertions distract from and slow down the narrative. This novel does not conform to modern notions of form.

But it is also wordy in another sense. Melville excites with his use of language. We are told in chapter seven that “There is death in this business of whaling - a speechlessly quick chaotic bungling of a man into Eternity.”; the word 'speechlessly' reminds us of the silence of death while at the same time acting as an intensifier for the 'quick', being used as a synonym for 'indescribably'; the word 'chaotic' harks back to the chaos of the void before creation; the word 'bungling' both describes the pushing and shoving that will force the living body through the doorway into death and at the same time refers to the errors that might cause the accident that brings about the death. This is beautiful writing.

Of course the novel doesn't really have a plot. Ship commanded by bonkers captain seeks revenge on white whale isn't really a plot. Jane Smiley (13 Ways of Looking at a Novel) again suggests what might be happening. She points out that Melville's problem was to get from the start of the sea voyage to its inevitable end. "The Pequod looks for the white whale for hundreds of pages; the encounter itself takes ... less than 5% of the novel. There is never any doubt about whether the whale will be found or pursued. At no juncture in the novel is there even the illusion of choice by Ahab, nor are there intervening circumstances.” So Melville has to find some way of exciting our interest. She suggests that whaling is inherently interesting. But she also suggests that Melville is seeking to "exhaust the spiritual meanings of obsession" by his use of multiple styles and that the novel should be viewed as analogous to Bach's Goldberg variations in which "much of the pleasure for the reader has to be witnessing the endless but systematic variety of the authors technique.” On this reading the length of the novel was necessary because it takes time to accustom the reader to the idea that the novel is trying to perpetrate.

There are some attempts at foreshadowing (“The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.”; C 3) and the prophecies related by the Parsee in Chapter 117 but these are clumsy and obvious, spoilers rather than bread crumbs. The fact that these prophecies occur so late in the book gives the impression that Melville was making it up as he went along rather than having a structured plot. This impression is reinforced by the virtual disappearance from the narrative of Ishmael once the voyage has got under way. Furthermore there is Bulkington. Ishmael comes across this character in chapter 3. Bulkington has a reputation at the tavern where Ishmael is to stay; he is a favourite of the sailors. He then disappears to reappear as the Peqoud sets sail as its helmsman. He has a whole chapter, albeit only of a page and a half, to himself; but this is to be his last appearance.

The story starts being told from the point of view of Ishmael. But once the ship gets underway the narrator becomes omniscient. Ishmael virtually vanishes. The central character is Ishmael, with Queequeeg also centre stage, but as the voyage gets under way the hitherto invisible Captain Ahab becomes the focus of attention. Moby-Dick is two books.

The language of the book starts robustly but as we move further into the drama, and into Ahab's monomania, it becomes more and more old-fashioned. The last few chapters are melodramatic and full of exclamation marks.

So there is a lot wrong with this book, of which some can be excused by being in the style of its time and others not. But surely it is redeemed by the many moments of magic:
  • There are pieces of perfect description:
    • “Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist ... had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.” (C 3)
    • “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.” (C 28)
    • “In thought, a fine human brow is like the East when troubled with the morning.” (C 79)
    • “If you have attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls.” (C 80)
    • “Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod's gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place, where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat.” (C 124)
  • There is a first line to die for:
    • “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (C 1)
      • Can there be a better encapsulation of character than those three words: 'Call me Ishmael'. Of course you have to know a bit of Bible. Ishmael was Abraham's elder son, born of his slave-girl Hagar; when Abraham's wife Sarah belatedly gave birth to Isaac she persuaded Abraham to cast Hagar and baby Ishmael into the wilderness. Thus Ishmael refers to an outcast, to one who has been disinherited.
    • The character of Ishmael continues to be explored in the early chapters:
      • “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” (C 1)
      • “I love to sail forbidden seas.” (C 1)
  • The novel teems with wonderfully astute reflections on the world:
    • “Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?” (C 1)
    • “A purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.” (C 1)
    • “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” (C 1)
    • “The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid - what will compare with it?” (C 1)
    • “The Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.” (C 1)
    • “Wherever in your wisdom you may conclude to lodge for the night, my dear Ishmael, be sure to enquire the price, and don't be too particular.” (C 2)
    • “It's only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.” (C 3)
    • “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” (C 3)
    • “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” (C 7)
    • “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness!” (C 9)
    • “Higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep.” (C 9)
    • “What is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous god of heaven and earth - pagans and all included - can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible!.” (C 10)
    • “But what is worship? - to do the will of God - that is worship. And what is the will of God? - to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me - that is the will of God.” (C 10)
    • “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” (C 12)
    • “Though seven hundred and seventy-seven is a pretty large number, yet, when you come to make a teenth of it, you will then see, I say, that the seven hundred and seventy-seventh part of a farthing is a good deal less than seven hundred and seventy-seven gold doubloons.” (C 16)
    • “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.” (C 20)
    • “But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God - so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that was safety! For worm-like, then, oh! Who would craven crawl to land!” (C 23)
    • “An utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.” (C 26)
    • “Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth.” (C 29)
    • “God keep me from ever completing anything.” (C 32)
    • “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.” (C 34)
    • "What he ate did not so much relieve his hunger, as keep it immortal in him.” (C 34)
    • “The chick that's in him pecks the shell.” (C 36)
    • “For God's sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man's blood was spilled for it.” (C 45)
    • “Of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.” (C 46)
    • “There are certain times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own.” (C 49)
    • “Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds.” (C 65)
    • “If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.” (C 72)
    • “Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?” (C 123)
    • “Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood.” (C 135)
  • There are even moments of humour:
    • “There, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with - ‘no suicides committed here’, and ‘no smoking in the parlor’; - might as well kill both birds at once.” (C 17)
    • “Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery?” (C 25)
    • “A mature man who uses hair oil, unless medicinally ... has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can't amount to much in his totality.” (C 25)
The introduction suggests that Melville intended Moby-Dick to be an allegory of America.

But does this novel stand the test of time?

  • The obvious maritime influence would have been The Antient Mariner, a poem by Coleridge. The story of the Essex, a whaling ship attacked and sunk by a whale, the survivors then enduring a long journey in small boats during which time they resorted to drawing lots and killing and eating the loser, was another inspiration; Melville is known to have read the account of this incident by Essex Mate Owen Chase.
  • The Essex incident (told in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea) has inspired other novels including:
But there are other influences too. Andrew Delbanco, in his Introduction to my (Penguin) edition, suggests that the book was written during the congressional debates over slavery which led to the Civil War; he calls Moby-Dick "a sustained meditation on the sectional crisis". It is noticeable that the highly skilled harponeers on board the ship are all non-whites but the officers of the ship are all white.

On 7th December 2017 BBC Radio 4 broadcast an 'In Our Time' programme about Moby-Dick. Host Melvyn Bragg was joined by Bridget Bennett, Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Leeds; Katie McGettigan, Lecturer in American Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London; and Graham Thompson, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham. Among the points they made was that:
  • Melville had been reading Shakespeare obsessively in the period just before writing M-D and this can be seen in the chapters with stage directions and in the way some characters are given quasi-Shakespearean soliloquies. Other influences include Milton (Ahab partly based on Satan in Paradise Lost) and the King James Bible including Jonah, the start (“Call me Ishmael”) and the ending, referencing Job. The language clearly draws on the KJ Bible. (GT)
  • Themes of the novel include: 
    • "asking, well which of us isn’t in one way or another a cannibal, who might not be a savage" seen in the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. (BB) The close male-male relationships; inter-racial male relationships are a feature of US literature including Hawkeye and the Mohicans, and Huckleberry Finn and escaping slave Jim (GT)
    • What should a leader do with his legitimate authority (GT) “Also how far authority can actually reach” (KM)
    • Political allegories eg Ahab a dictator whose power has been conferred by the crew as in Hobbes Leviathan (BB)
    • It is a Voyage and Return narrative (GT)
  • M-D “is a novel full of symbols” with multiple meanings (GT) such as whiteness whose meanings Ishmael lists but “whiteness becomes a surface on which you can project” (KM)
  • The Quarterdeck chapter where Ahab gets the men on side with his plan is the pivotal chapter in the novel. This is where it becomes epic. (GT)
  • Melville’s working method was to write a basic story and then supplement it to add depth. (GT) 
Sales were initially disappointing, perhaps because a review from the Athenaeum called it “disfigured by mad English and absurd” (KM). Then in the 1920s Modernism arrived and Billy Budd published 1924, Benjamin Britten wrote novel (libretto by EM Forster). (BB).  DH Lawrence praised it “as a proto-Modernist text” (KM)

“We might even think of it as post-modernist in terms of the kind of pastiches, the collections of different texts and the kind of cut-and-paste method; so this all makes it quite illegible in some kinds of ways. But that’s precisely what the novel is about, it’s about the limits of meaning, it’s about what can be done with the novel, it’s about the extent of the novel” (BB)

May 2019; 625 pages

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