The main narrative of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is actually simple and straightforward: Captain Ahab of the whaling ship Pequod – during a previous whaling voyage – lost his leg to the white whale Moby Dick (first mentioned, 179 pages in), and therefore is now on the quest for revenge. Crew member Ishmael narrates this story of the chase, and across the chapters which read like reflective and descriptive diary entries whales and whaling in general are romanticised. Reflective, because Ishmael wrote fondly of his experiences and interactions aboard the ship, and descriptive, because he also spent a large part of the novel (perhaps disproportionately so) detailing the finer aspects of whale-hunting, as well as its different associations.
In summary, a “grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world”.
This, as a consequence, renders some chapters a little long-winded and unnecessarily tedious or verbose for me, and personal preferences will likely determine which chapters the reader enjoys. I preferred depictions of the characters and some information about the whaling trade, such as the customary practice of “gams”, when the vessels encounter one another on the sea in a social meeting. On the contrary, the whales – for instance, their scientific classification (or cetology), their anatomy (“his skull, spout-hole, jaw, teeth, tail, forehead, fins, and divers other parts”), their pictures or popular representations, and even the uses of their body parts, sperm oil, and blubber – did not interest me as much. Technical or occupational intricacies of the trade (from the chase to the slaughter to the towing to the dissection), like the whale line and its deployment, was fleshed out excessively. I could not fully appreciate the broader philosophical or religious allusions too, which constituted significant portions of the novel.
Notwithstanding the Pequod’s whaling exploits, the tensions and incidents which emerge from them, and the peculiarities of the eccentric Captain Ahab, for me, “Moby-Dick” only got going right at the very end. Even so, in this chase to kill the white whale, the futility of the endeavour is made more and more apparent, through the gams with other ships, and as the expedition trudges along. The epilogue, in this vein, remains poignant. Overall, it becomes apparent to the reader that there are broader themes, questions, and observations (of whaling) which go beyond the main narrative, yet they were unfortunately lost on me.