Call me Ishmael. So begins Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick with proper Introduction as did Dickens’ Great Expectations. Melville does not waste time in introducing the reader to his love for the sea. This love was kindled at an early age when he set out to sea as a cabin boy at the tender age of nine. At eleven he went on an eighteen month voyage on a whaling ship. It is against this backdrop that the story of Moby Dick is told. Melville goes into great lengths to explain various facets of whaling and even dares draw the reader into the anatomy of the whale. All these are laborious to the average reader and hence a majority may prefer an abridged version of Moby Dick. Nonetheless, the characters created by Herman are timeless. Let us begin with Ishmael.
He is a lost soul searching for meaning. Once again we are introduced to this side of him right in the first page. Melville knew the art of taking the reader by the throat-going for the jugular so to speak. This is important especially to the modern reader who has so many gadgets competing for his attention. Ishmael decides it is about time he left dry land. His reason…
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, grizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; end especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off-then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
We all need a break once in a while; a time to let off steam. I can relate with Ishmael’s weariness for I recently felt much the same way. Whenever I find myself in such a situation, I head out to my father’s farm. Therein there is a valley that is green all year round. It is located at the far end of the farm where there is little human traffic. I have had a few pleasant surprises therein. Herons, sunbirds, woodpeckers, hornbills, cranes, monarchs, fiscals, and lovebirds are but a few of these. In that valley, I feel closest to my Maker. There are days when I think should my journey on earth come to an end, I would like that my loved ones rest my body therein. But I digress.
Meet Queequeq. He is an experience harpooner who nearly drove Ishmael off his wits the first time they met. How else would you react to a stranger you are supposed to share a bed with who has strange black squares on his cheeks, is dark purplish yellow in colour, carries a little god and has all the signs of a cannibal? However, as is often the case, Ishmael’s fear of Queequeq was born out of ignorance- a fact he would later admit upon realising that in Queequeq, he had a bosom friend.
In a chapter titled Knights and Squires, we find Starbuck and Stubb, the chief mate and the second mate of the Pequod, the whaling ship upon which Ishmael boards. No two characters could ever be more contrasting. While Starbuck was grave and to some extent superstitious, Stub was flippant and enjoyed teasing and cajoling his men into bravery. It is written of Starbuck that he was uncommonly conscientious for a sea man, a trait that we see in his forebodings concerning Moby Dick. Nonetheless, to his credit, this superstition is attributed to intelligence rather than Ignorance. On the other hand, Stub was a happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking peril as they came with an indifferent air…Good humoured, easy and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. I found myself asking if I were to choose between Starbuck and Stubb as a boss, who would I prefer? I was inclined towards Stubb. However, towards the end of the story, I found a better man in Starbuck.
Enter Ahab, Pequod’s captain. He was something alright. He gave new meaning to fanaticism. If a country had one poacher with half the heart of Ahab, it would only be a matter of time before the population of wildlife in that country would dwindle drastically. A monomaniac he was. Day and night he dreamed of hunting down Moby Dick. Perhaps this was because the whale had made off with his leg. Now in its place was an ivory leg made out of a whale’s bone.
Lastly Moby Dick, the stuff of sea legends. Few whale-men had actually seen him. Of these, few had lived to tell the tale. He was a whale of uncommon magnitude and malignity, a whale among whales; distinguished from other whales by a peculiar snow white wrinkled forehead and a high pyramidical white hump. Moby Dick was every whale-man’s prize and as such, he seemed to have developed an uncanny ability to outwit the best among them, including the tenacious Ahab.
It is these characters that keep the reader flipping every page with anticipation. Did they catch the Moby Dick? Or did it live up to his reputation? I leave that to the reader to find out. Nonetheless, Moby Dick left a foul taste in my mouth for I realised I have the heart of a conservationist and the manner in which the whale is hunted and ripped apart was nearly enough to make me toss the novel aside. Nonetheless, I held out to the end. A part of me is glad that I did for there were numerous gems of wisdom that I found worth my while and other mutterings that shook me to the core. These I leave you to ponder through.
A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.
…the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favourable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning.
I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.
“Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride’s eye!-Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”
We workers in wood make bridal bedsteads and card tables, as well as coffins and hearses. We work by the month or by the job or by the profit; not for us to ask the why and wherefore of our work, unless it be too confounded cobbling and then we stash it if we can.
So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.
The monumental meeting between Hawthorne and Herman