Thursday, September 03, 2015

BookMarks #5: Moby Dick

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: Fiction, Adventure, First Person Narrative
Published: 1851

“Call Me Ishmael”

Thus begins this tome narrating a tale from the mid-19th century whaling industry. The story follows Ishmael, who joins a whaling ship Pequod. The Pequod is led by the mysterious Captain Ahab who is fixated on hunting down Moby Dick, the big white whale, which had been the cause of Ahab losing one leg in a previous expedition. It’s a chase around the globe till the Pequod finally meets Moby Dick, an encounter with tragic consequences to the ship.

The story flows like a whaleship journey (average one taking around 3-4 years). The reader moves along with Ishmael as he goes to Nantucket in search of a job aboard a whaling ship. We learn through him the different aspects of the whaling industry. He makes a new friend, Queequeg and together they are recruited aboard the Pequod which is due to set sail for its three year journey in hunting sperm whales for their oil. Once the voyage has commenced, we meet the ship’s captain Ahab. Here the narrative shifts from Ishmael to Ahab with Ishmael's character retreating to the background. Ahab is interested in only one whale, Moby Dick. For him collecting sperm oil is just a collateral business. His monomania affects the crew, some of whom are reluctant and fearful of him, but they still follow his orders. Finally after a long journey cutting across the oceans, Ahab gets his wish. He finds Moby Dick and gives chase for three days but the whale not only eludes his capture but finally destroys the Pequod. All the Pequod’s crew except for our narrator Ishmael are killed.

The narrative moves at a leisurely pace with the title character being first mentioned only in chapter 36. More than a story it’s a treatise on the whaling industry. The writer often diverting into the details with the hunt for Moby Dick being almost incidental to his treatise. The reader learns a lot about the whaling industry of the mid-19th century e.g. the whaling towns, the hierarchy in the whaling ship and the salary structure, the multi-racial nature of the crew and their various roles on board the ship, the ownership of the oil from the whale etc. The book provides a comprehensive description of different types of whales (as per the prevalent understanding of the time e.g. the whale is a fish with horizontal fin), their physical structure, details of the harpoons used in the hunt, and how a whale is hunted, the process of collecting the whale oil, the uses of sperm oil, even the potential impact of such widespread hunting on the whale population.

The author worships the sperm whale, in his opinion the most magnificent creature on earth. He provides lots of references to myths and religion. There are section with interpretations of various religious works to suit his philosophy of the whale, including stories from Bible and Hinduism (referred to as Shasters). Moby Dick is a scholarly work dealing with everything from mythology to evolution to classification to the commercial exploitation of sperm whales.

The book also provides a glimpse of the life in mid-19th century. Also shows how much political correctness has come into today’s writing and life in general. I don’t think calling a person a cannibal would be appropriate in present time, although may have been completely apt for that period. Or telling an African-American crew member that he would be sold for less than the price of sperm oil.

In short, Moby Dick is the story of one man’s monomaniacal obsession for vengeance leading to his ultimate doom while simultaneously providing a comprehensive discourse on the subject of whales and the whaling industry.

Previously on BookMarks - More Salt Than Pepper

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