“Call me Ishmael” might be one of the most famous book openings in literary world, yet Ishmael himself turns out NOT to be the leading character at all in this book. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Ishmael is the narrator of Moby Dick; but unlike Carraway, who is much involved in the events and expresses his thoughts of each character, Ishmael seems to be very passive right after the sail began. Of course he still narrates the story until the end of it, but throughout the voyage, I can’t help feeling that, somehow, Melville has stolen Ishmael’s pen to write the story, and only lent it him again every once in a while. Nevertheless, Moby Dick is such marvelous story, that I won’t complain too much of who is narrating it.
On the other hand, Moby Dick—although has the privilege of becoming the book title—physically appears only in the three final chapters of the book. So, if it is not Ishmael, nor Moby Dick, who is the central character of this book? It is the enigmatic Captain Ahab.
The story is started with Ishmael, who intends to join a whaling ship, which at that time offers a great sea adventure as well as good money. On the way to Nantucket (a village of most successful whalers) he accidentally meets a pagan cannibal named Queequeg. Instead of terrified, Ishmael finds that Queequeg has tender heart and politeness, even more than civilized Christian people’s. I believe Melville has intended to criticize our civilization by this passage. Ishmael and Queequeg become good friends and they both register in a whaling voyage on board of a ship called the Pequod, whose captain is a mysterious man named Captain Ahab.
Even before Ahab really appears—he mysteriously hides ‘behind the screen’ before the ship reaches certain distance from the land—there are numerous issues and stories around this enigmatic captain. Everyone seems to be between respectful and terrified towards the captain. It’s not after Ishmael is on board the Pequod, that he finally sees Captain Ahab. No sooner than that, Ahab makes clear to all crew and mates, what his main intention for the sail is, which is far from executing the ship’s owners business, but for his personal unfinished business: taking revenge to a certain white whale which has snatched his one leg in a hunting. The poor white whale is the famous Moby Dick!
The declaration immediately draws dark clouds over the Pequod, as if the Devil himself suddenly stays among the crew. From then on everyone feels gloomy and restless. The chief mate of the Pequod is Starbuck; a wise, experienced and educated man. He is the only person who bravely confronts Ahab of his secret revenge till the end. Starbuck is my only hope to hinder Moby Dick from Ahab’s wicked plan. However, as Ahab is the Captain—the higher power on board, Starbuck can’t do anything more than persuading and pledging; and both are rejected by Ahab.
Melville put huge effort too to explain the nature of Sperm Whale; the noblest whale in the world. He wrote detailed explanation of sperm whale’s anatomy; the real portrait of sperm whale ‘business management’; and why sperm whales are hunted much more than other whale species. Melville criticized the savage way whalers treated such noble creature as sperm whale, and how they were more massacred than hunted, merely for profiting them. As Melville has slipped a critic about barbarian vs civilized people, I believe Melville wanted to highlight the irony of civilized people who treat other creatures like barbarians, and even eat their prey like cannibals. This is another proof of the irony, that the more industrious a civilization is, the more uncivilized it is.
But the central polemic is still on the hunt of Moby Dick. Throughout the story Melville has planted the noble, pure, divine, as well as powerful and clever impression upon Moby Dick, that you would be very excited to ‘see’ what he is like. So, when he finally (really) appears from the depth of the sea, it’s really impressive; Melville paints the appearance very intensely and beautifully in his prose.
So, in the end, what is Moby Dick about? It’s about the dark sides of men; the passion of revenge; and the quest of justice from God. All these are woven into an epic story about the noble creature—the Sperm Whale—because in Moby Dick, the white sperm whale, Melville saw our Creator.
Moby Dick also talks about conscience. Starbuck is my favorite character here because he keeps his conscience pure till the end. We should imitate him in our daily life, always trying to speak the truth whenever there is evil. Sometimes we are powerless to change things—like Starbuck failed in changing his captain—but the most important thing is our efforts. Last but not least, there is a question about whale hunting—or in this case, hunting any creatures to use them for human’s life—is it right or wrong? I would say, it’s already in our conscience (I talked about this further in my chapter post). Conscience doesn’t have any clear limits or principles, it’s in our soul, and that’s why people can keep on debating upon these matters. And that’s why, I guess, Melville took the effort to write these hundreds of pages of Moby Dick!
Five whole whales for Moby Dick!—one book I’d need to reread every other years…
*I read Penguin English Library edition*
*This book is counted as:*
10th book for Back To The Classics 2013
8th book for Read Big! Reading Challenge
13th book for New Authors Reading Challenge 2013
60th book for The Classics Club Project