“Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush!” So confidently cries Captain Ahab of his final destiny, even as his obsession sends chills down your unsettled spine.
Just about everybody knows who Moby-Dick is, and Ahab is one of few characters from classic American literature recognized by almost every English speaker. But few people have read the story itself (although most could probably quote the first sentence of the novel).
The story is straightforward: Ishmael, a young schoolteacher, desperately needs a vacation from his job. After a curious encounter with a “savage” named Queequeg, they both sign up for a long voyage aboard the Pequod, a whaleship captained by Ahab. There are some adventures, which are shuffled with long explications of whales and ships. All the while the hunt for the White Whale is marked with strange portents, and when the chase takes them to the very edge of the map … well, you can guess at the rest.
For some, the story’s so simple that it’s almost predictable. For most, however, it’s the long digressions. And let’s not be shy about it: Some people will have been hooked and in for the long haul by the time Melville starts breaking down every single body part of a whale, and some will be completely turned off. You have to be willing to let Melville be in control of his craft and go along with whatever larger picture he’s painting about the whale.
Because make no mistake: Moby-Dick is more than just a whale. The narrator is relatively absent for nearly one-third of the book, and yet seems just as obsessed by his own story as Captain Ahab is by the existential evil he sums up in Moby-Dick. Indeed, Ishmael warns readers at one point that if they think of his story is an allegory, they’ll be completely missing what’s really going on.
Ahab has all but lost his soul in his universalizations and his vengeful death wish to justify the right to life itself. Ahab wages a one-man war against all evil with a high price. When does belief become self-destructive, and when will ambivalence fail you? And what does madness really look like? Those are two of many questions at the heart of the hunt for Moby-Dick, and the depth of these questions and images are part of the surprise pleasures of reading the novel.
Another surprise is the language and the novel’s modernity. At times, and very naturally, his characters launch into soliloquies and chapters come with stage directions. Furthermore, for a man writing long before Wikipedia, Melville can write about a seemingly dull subject and make it very informative, very clear and very beautiful.
You’ll never read anything quite like “Moby-Dick,” and while you may not love the characters, the detours or the ending, one thing’s for sure: by the time you finish it, you’ll be shaken by what human beings are capable of — and of believing.