Call me Ishmael. It is one of the most noted lines in literary history. Thus begins Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a classic in America’s literary body. Complex and dense, the tale revolves around a depressive former school teacher who instructs the reader to call him Ishmael as he becomes embroiled in an ill-fated, epic voyage around the world aboard the Pequod. While the straightforward plot is well-known—an insane captain pursues an insane white whale—the nuances, imagery, allegories, and symbolism are what make this tale a classic.
The most prevalent theme in Moby-Dick is that of man versus nature, human versus animal. Fear, pain, and rage have all combined to create Captain Ahab’s relentless obsession, and the mysterious, deadly white whale has become a symbol for all of the man’s (and humankind’s) suffering. Nature in all its might, apathy, and sometimes seeming-intent is personified in the figure of the white whale. Beyond the relationship between Ahab and the white whale, Melville explores the fact that nature is in turns respected, feared, and exploited.
Moby-Dick is a biting satire on religion—mocking both foolish extremism and the ethical hypocrisy of christians—even as it is filled with biblical symbolism as well as mythology and philosophy. Race also features heavily in the story with a diverse cast of characters from New Englanders to South Sea Islanders to African tribesmen to American Indians. Pointedly, though, Melville avoids any commentary on slavery. His novel was first published in 1851, when slavery was still a reality of life, and though he is egalitarian in his treatment of ethnic characters, they are largely drawn as caricatures and play subordinate roles in the story.
Melville also takes the opportunity present with hunting sperm whale to heavy-handedly explore sexuality and sexual identity. He is gleefully immature and dogged in writing of the unctuous sperm oil and spermaceti, but he also broaches the philosophical idea of transcendentalism that had begun to develop several decades before Melville published Moby-Dick. The author also wrestles with determinism versus free will, fate versus chance, and through his narrator (and the strange coincidences that drive the hunt for the white whale) attempts to develop a complicated metaphor for the operation of these potential forces.
What makes the tale seem inaccessible to the modern reader is a combination of the length, the convoluted pattern of storytelling, and the complex writing style. Melville himself is very present throughout the story, and the character the readers are instructed to call Ishmael is in turns the central narrator and then a peripheral narrator. The omniscient third person perspective takes over in chapters, and the book is interspersed with long bouts of exposition on whaling and sailing.
Filled with metaphor, allegorical imagery, and Shakespearean humor, Melville’s Moby-Dick is a grim, funny, haunting study of depression, friendship, monomania, and pervasive madness. The weighty tome can be described as an ode to sea voyages, a gory manual on whaling, an adventure, a revenge tragedy, a quest, or a psychological thriller. Indeed, Melville’s most famous work is all of these.
Highly recommended for fans of classic literature, particularly fans of American literature, sea-going adventures, and revenge tales