First, some fun with numbers. “Moby-Dick” is over 500 pages long (editions do vary, however,) and includes 135 chapters. The first 23 chapters and the last 23 are all good; but in between there is a mix of the good and the needless. The latter have titles like “Cetology”, “The Whiteness of the Whale”, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales”, “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales” and so on. There are approximately 40 of these needless chapters. In a sense, then, Melville’s most famous work (published in 1851) is made up of two different books: the one is the novel proper, which is a great and unique work of American literature; the other is a long-winded and pedantic study of whaling and whales generally. Fortunately, the needless chapters are quite easy to identify and I have no qualms about skipping them.
The adventure begins with a sailor’s arrival in the town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The sailor, Ishmael, is the novel’s narrator. “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” At length he boards the Pequod, a Nantucket whaling ship. The captain of this vessel is the enigmatic and ominous Ahab. Imagine a mangled and one-legged Abraham Lincoln having succumbed to moral and spiritual darkness, and you will have an idea of what Ahab is. His ship is already out to sea when he informs his crew that his concern is not profit or conventional whale hunting. Ahab is in search of an enormous, apparently invincible whale named Moby-Dick; for it was this whale which tore off his leg.
Ahab is the archetype of the charismatic madman, and his appearances and words are always gripping. In one episode, he is engaged in a debate with Starbuck, his chief mate. Starbuck puts forward an appeal to common sense, which views vengeance on “a dumb brute” as madness or even blasphemy. Ahab replies:
“[Moby-Dick] tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
And near the novel’s disastrous climax, he says of himself with a mix of pride and melancholy: “Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! Cold, cold—I shiver!”
Whatever one might think about hunting in general, whale hunting in particular has about it a hard-to-deny foulness. That foulness comes through in Melville’s narrative, intentionally or not. His novel is indeed a tale of revenge, but not in accord with Ahab’s monomaniacal will. His pursuit of personal vengeance is finally turned against himself—along with everyone who is foolish enough to follow him.