By Yvonne Blackwood ~
Moby Dick, written by Herman Melville and published in 1851, is one of the simplest written classics that I have read. It does not have the modernist twists and turns or intricate literary techniques popular in the late 1800s, however, Melville employs great dialogue and soliloquies. The novel packs a good punch with vivid imagery that draws readers into the world of a whaling romp at sea.
Captain Ahab, (the mad fiend) is a demented man obsessed with capturing and killing Moby Dick, a great white whale. Why the obsession? The whale had bitten off his right leg up to the knee on a previous voyage. Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, set sail to harpoon whales for whale oil. It has a motley crew and surprisingly a multicultural one for that time period―two Aboriginals, a negro, some Caucasians including Ishmael, an oriental, and the secret group of five men from the Philippines.
The story is narrated in first-person by Ishmael―a schoolmaster who goes on sea voyages when he is feeling down. Ishmael doesn’t play a major role in the events of the story and we are only privy to his point of view based on what he sees and hears. While he seems well versed in whaling, his bias/ignorance about other cultures is evident. He refers to the tattoos (a part of Polynesian culture for more than 2000 years) on Queequeg as squares, calls him an innocent savage and a heathen, but in the end, they become good friends. It is ironical, that it is this “savage” who saves the lives of at least two crew members by diving fearlessly into the churning seas to rescue them.
Names are important in this novel and Ahab, Elijah, Gabriel―all biblical names―inject Christianity into the narrative. In fact, Captain Peleg tells Ishmael that before he allows the aboriginal, Queequeg, to come on board the Pequod, “We don’t allow any pagans [on board ship] unless they’re converted.
But although Queequeg is an interesting character, it is Ahab who is most intriguing. Early in the story, the narrator states that he “seems to be troubled by some mighty woe.” Later he describes The Cape of Good Hope as “That place of tormented seas, howling winds and leaping waves,” a description which aptly matches Ahab’s personality. Unknown to the crew, this voyage is all about revenge for Captain Ahab and he is willing to allow the valuable whale oil that his men have worked hard to collect and place in barrels, to be ruined while he relentlessly pursues Moby Dick. His overconfidence leads him to disregard common sense. He even orders his blacksmith to make a special harpoon to kill Moby Dick which he baptizes with the blood of his three harpooners!
In the end, the predictions by the mysterious Fedallah that Ahab will have neither hearse nor coffin at his death comes true. The pleading from first mate Starbuck, “Oh my captain, do not go,” falls on deaf ears. Ahab is too driven to give up the chase. Eventually, Moby Dick attacks the boat head-on, a rope catches Ahab around his neck and he is shot out of the boat and gone forever. Of the entire crew, only Ishmael is saved and is, therefore, able to narrate the story. An easy read and an absorbing tale.