“The story became more like a whaling manual than a novel and it made me wonder ‘what is a novel’? Is it something that is made-up? Is it informative? Is it feasible? Is it knowable?”
The Mobile Library Reading Group wanted to start reading the classics! After a lot of discussion we selected Moby Dick by Herman Neville. Here are some of our members’ thoughts on this Great American Novel.
“I wanted to read this book because it is a classic and I think it is good to know why certain books are so well regarded. Also I am interested to know why this book is so deeply embedded in American culture.
There are constant references to it in film and book. I read the introduction which went some way to explaining this but didn’t get any further and would still like to know. I just found the language too difficult to read, you have to read very slowly so I was constantly going back on myself.
So this is my way of apologising for putting you all through it, but I still think we should work our way through some classics!"
Reviewer: Margaret H
“Ismael is broke. He is in the 'insular city of Manhattoesʼ (Manhattan NY) following too many funerals or knocking off too many hats when he decides to return to sea in a whaling boat. Off to Nantucket he goes to sign on. During the initial journey he meets several disparate people but eventually, at Spouter Inn, he meets Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Seas who is peddling in New Zealand shrunken heads and regularly worships his Congo baby idol. After sharing a bed, Ismael and Queequeg become inseparable and eventually sign-on to the Pequod through captains Peleg and Bildad (Peleg mistakenly called Queequeg, Qhohog and the name remained).
"Preparing for the trip Peleg and Bildad were assisted by Aunt Charity, Bildadʼs sister. Starbuck, the Chief Mate and Stubb the Second Mate (also the brother-in-law of Charity and Bildad, a Cape Cod man) were joined by Flask, the Third Mate, a native of Tisbury, Marthaʼs Vineyard, who felt he was on a mission to destroy the Leviathans wherever encountered. All three with their whaling spears were excellent lancers and these were supported by Queequeg, Tashtego an Indian from Gay Head (Marthaʼs Vineyard) and Dagoo an African from a coastal village. Once Peleg and Bildad were no longer needed as pilots they dropped back into the pilot boat and returned to Nantucket as the ship sails towards the Atlantic. As yet no sign of Captain Ahab.
“Captain Ahab appeared on the quarter deck several days into the journey (at page 134). Ahab had lost his leg on a previous trip to the White Whale, off Japan, and it had been replaced by a polished bone of a sperm whales jaw, in fact according to Tashtego he has a quiver of ʻemʼ.
“There were about 30 other men on the ship who were responsible for the sailing, maintaining and general upkeep as well as preparing for catching and killing the whales. The rigours of the ship were described, the manner in which the Captain and the mates met socially over their meals and the preparation for attacking the Sperm whales and the Right whales, each of which would give up 50-80 gallons of sperm oil. There were intricate descriptions of the Pequod and the boats in which the mates and harpooners would go out to attack the animals. The catching, skinning and de-oiling of the whales were described extensively by Ismael. At times other ships were hailed and on some occasions Captains exchanged visits but mainly they shouted to each other, passing mail packets or asking for help as the Captain of the Rachel did when searching for his missing son.
“Starbuck had begged the Captain not to go after Moby Dick, saying they had a full load of sperm oil, they should now return to Nantucket to their wives and children, turn the ship back across the oceans; there was no need to pursue the White Whale. Although they looked in each other’s eyes and saw the danger they were in, Ahab could only continue. After forty years on the whalers he felt that Moby Dick, who had taken his leg all those years ago, was more important to him than life itself. The White Whale, Moby Dick, was eventually spotted and chased over three very difficult days. Boats were smashed by the tail of the whale, Pip was lost along with Fedallah, the Parsee, and the sea was blooded and turbulent. The boats were rebuilt in the pursuance of the White Whale as was Ahabʼs leg. It was all to no avail. The Boats were rebuilt as wood and planks permitted and still the monster had to be pursued. The Pequod is sunk, the boats and oils have gone but Ismael hangs on to some splinters when Queequegʼs coffin drops over him and he drifts for some days before being picked up by The Rachel.
“The story became more like a whaling manual than a novel and it made me wonder ‘what is a novel’? Is it something that is made-up? Is it informative? Is it feasible? Is it knowable?
“Well no doubt it can be all these things but for Moby Dick it was such a complex piece of writing that on more than one occasion I wondered whether I could comprehend the totality of the coverage. Herman Melville did comment that ʻto produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty themeʼ and Moby Dick does prove the point. Melvilleʼs way of bringing the story together was absorbing but extraordinarily exhausting. It was clear that the reader had to know about the oceans, had to be aware of the tackle used, had to follow the types of rigging on the ship, needed to understand how the boats were manned, resolutely follow the discipline of the ship and the social relationships from the captain to the boy Pip, but there were no un-complicated aspects of the novel. The Pequod was a discrete entity which never needed to pull into land or have contact with any other organisation. Although the Pequod meets the Virgin, the Rose Bud, the Samuel Enderby, the Bachelor, the Rachel and the Delight during her trip, none of them was an inclusive meeting and for the reader it was all about the technical way in which the captains met and/or talked because Ahab was not interested in the people only if they had seen the White Whale. As soon as that aspect was faced then as a reader all else was peripheral.
“The story may have been called Moby Dick but really it was about Ahab and his obsession which eventually destroyed the boat, killed the mariners and lost the sperm oil.
“The writing and bringing together of all aspects of the story was amazing, it took your breath away in its complexity and its simplicity. If Moby Dick is the definition of ‘a classic’ then all that can be done is to give a cheer for the novel and all who sail in her. I found it a hard read, but that is my problem and not the author’s - he is not responsible for my inadequacies. I learnt lot and no doubt I will forget a lot, but it was written like a maze that was only unravelled if the reader fully concentrated. Melville was a magnificent storyteller, a wonderful word mixer, a bringer of images from the typhoon, to the pods (of whales), to the building of a harpoon for Moby Dick.”
Reviewer: Janet J
The Mobile Library will reading the British classic Howards End by E.M. Forster written in 1910. Forster himself once called it 'my best novel'.