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Posts Tagged ‘19th century literature’

Everyone is, or at least should be, familiar to some degree with the story of Moby-Dick – which the introduction to my edition describes as one of two great American novels, the other being The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which I should also get around to reading at some point). It’s the tale of mad Captain Ahab’s pursuit of and battle with the great, malevolent, albino whale, Moby Dick. (It’s hard to say why the title of the book is hyphenated but the name of the animal in the text isn’t – something to do with publication practice in the mid nineteenth century, perhaps.)

It’s the kind of book that has become far bigger than itself, in terms of its literary and cultural importance as well as the wealth of symbolism it invites the reader to discover. And it’s a pretty big book, too, although I read it in a dense, compact mass-market paperback format; besides which, being a fan of fantasy, I’m perfectly happy burying myself in volumes whose page-count can run into four figures. Further, while the book is lengthy, the chapters are short – often not more than half a dozen pages, frequently just a couple of pages.

This practice of short chapters is tied into the narrative format. Much of the early part of the book is a straightforward first-person narrative, where Ishmael recounts his arrival in Nantucket, meeting Queequeg, the ominous words of Elijah and the minister, and Ishmael and Queequeg’s recruitment to the Pequod and its setting sail. Thereafter, however, the flow of the novel becomes choppy – postmodern, even. Some chapters describe events on the Pequod, some narrate the private thoughts of Ahab or the mates, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, some describe the form and use of parts of a whaling ship and its boats, some are monologues by the characters or exchanges of dialogue, some deviate entirely from the story and give natural history lessons or tell the tale of another vessel that the Pequod happens to meet.

Throughout, there is an overall plot arc that takes the Pequod down through the Atlantic, into the Indian Ocean, through the vast archipelago of south-east Asia and into the Pacific. This narrative heart of the story is as unhurried as an ocean current, and it can be somewhat slow and ponderous. But the story is kept afloat by the continual undercurrent of foreboding (too many aqueous metaphors?). While there are a lot of chapters, I felt that each one added, if only marginally, to the ensuing climax of the book. The final confrontation between Ahab and his men and the white whale would not have had the same impact without all the chapters spent describing and categorising whales, explaining the use of the on-board smithy, detailing how spermaceti is removed from a whale’s head and so on and so forth. More pertinently, all the mishaps that befall the Pequod – Ahab’s peg leg getting broken, Tashtego falling into the Heidelburgh Tun, the madness of Pip, the mutinous unease of Starbuck, Queequeg’s sickness that is cured by his lying in his own coffin – lend the conclusion a grand inevitability, the reading of which inspired a kind of dark joy.

As you can guess at this point, I enjoyed it a lot. What stood out especially (besides the form), was the language – it was dense and verbose and, like ocean waves, swelled and rolled with majestic cadences reminiscent of the poetry of the time or of Shakespeare and the King James Bible; take this example from Chapter 111, ‘The Pacific’:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potter’s Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

As for the meaning of the novel, there are many strands and many interpretations: the impossibility and danger of attempting to subjugate nature or pursue the divine or the cult of personality or of the ideƩ fixe; Moby Dick can be taken to represent nature or God or Man or an impossible dream. The novel is also perfectly suited to being read as a danger-filled adventure story, full of interesting facts about whales and whaling.

One hundred and sixty years after publication, however, you can’t help but wonder how much of the ‘facts’ in the novel are Victorian ignorance or romanticism. Whales are far from the vicious beasts that Moby-Dick implies; and the sperm whale is described as being the greatest ‘fish’ of the sea – but there is no mention of the blue whale. I think it’s advisable to take such parts of the text with a pinch of salt.

So Moby-Dick really is a great novel. It is not an easy read, but it is not nearly as difficult as one might imagine. The language is old-fashioned (even for the mid nineteenth century, I’m sure) and full of obscure words and references and out-dated ideas (the portrayal of non-white people was fairly cringe-worthy, for example), the narrative is sprawling, non-linear and mixes first- and third-person with a sprinkling of script, but it retains a powerful momentum and authenticity that little modern literature can match.

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