Year of Giant Novels, Part 3: Moby-Dick


I went in to Moby-Dick with very few preconceptions. The only thing I had heard about it was that there is some chapter on cetology, and everyone finds it too tedious to keep reading. I think this is a poor excuse, because it doesn’t occur until Chapter 32 and it isn’t that long.

Since I’ve been focusing on description on this blog recently, I thought I’d give a particularly interesting description. Early on, we get this description of a painting:

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbhours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavoured to delineate chaos betwiched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

The description actually continues after this. It is quite wordy, but much of this can be attributed to an older style. One of the joys of reading this novel is to revel in how inventive the descriptions are. Melville could have described every detail of this painting, giving us a perfect image of it in our minds.

Instead, we get this nebulous, vague sense. We have to imagine a painting for which an ambitious artist tries to capture chaos. This contributes much more toward the unsettling feeling we’re supposed to have of the place than if we had some clear idea. The description also does a good job of having more than one purpose. It incorporates some of the surroundings: “unequal cross-lights” and “little window towards the back of the entry.”

The painting has an ominous whale figure in it, and so it serves a deeper function than pure ambiance. It is a foreshadowing of the chaos that is to come. It sets the mood for whaling.

I’m only about half-way through the novel so far, but here’s my general impression. In some senses, it’s not as hard as I thought. The language is dense and there are tangents, but the first half has a lot of good suspense and the story is never lost for long.

In other senses, it’s harder than I thought. I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. I have to have a particular attitude and willingness to go along with it. This is different than most novels. If you like to read, you probably can pick up almost anything at almost any time and enjoy it.

This novel must be embraced for what it is. If you’re going to get annoyed at reading detailed categorizations of whales, you can’t pick it up (or you have to skip those parts). But if you embrace it, even these sections are enjoyable.

All these sections taken together contribute to a full immersion into the culture of New England whaling in the 1800’s. There’s newspaper clippings, poems, songs, paintings, personas, textbook-style cetology, historical bits, sermons, etc. These are all woven beautifully into the story itself. It’s really brilliant and fun when you are willing to go with it but feels impenetrable when not in the mood.

I think anyone interested in writing should read this novel, because it is written with such magnificent style (unlike Don Quixote where understanding its historical significance is more important than actually reading it). Melville is a master at sliding between registers: from high lyricism to gruff whaler dialect. If you only stick to modern novels, you’ll never encounter brilliant passages like:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

I’ve read this passage twenty times in the writing and editing of this post, and it never ceases to amaze me with its beauty. This type of thing could never get published today, even in obscure literary fiction (actually, maybe Mark Helprin comes close). Anyway, I definitely recommend this one, which surprises me. I expected it to be a terrible experience.

P.S. Most of you probably wouldn’t notice if I didn’t point it out, but I’m switching to Friday posts after over a year of doing Wednesdays.

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