Wake me up when the whale starts killing everybody

by David Francis

Call me crazy, but I do not understand this 200 year long hub-bub over Moby Dick. If you have never read the book, then you might say, "No, I saw the movie and it was pretty good." or "It must be good or how could they have all those cool quotes in Star Trek II?" And you would be quite right in thinking such thoughts. If you've never actually read the book, then you might think this novel was an exciting adventure with profound undertones about a demented sea captain in mad pursuit of the legendary white whale which, through its dumb might and malice, comes to represent a preternatural power that holds supremacy over all the aspirations of humanity.

Unfortunately, you would be wrong to think that.  Its a good idea for a story and it certainly should be what the book is about.  However, while, it is true that a crazy sea captain does pop up occasionally in this work and a dangerous white whale also makes one or two cameo appearances, the vast majority of the book is dedicated to the extremely tedious subject of whaling in general. In fact, if I were to catalog Moby Dick for a library, rather than classify it as literature, I would shelve it in the self-help section so individuals wanting to learn how to become 19th century whalers could make full use of this exhaustive treatise.

Not that self-help books can't become great works of literature, but, in my opinion, any self-help book should be a time-saver. If you read Hesiod's Works and Days or Machiavelli's The Prince, for example, you can expect to learn all the ins and outs of becoming a good farmer in ancient Greece or a wicked tyrant in Renaissance Italy after less than 100 pages. On the other hand, you could actually sail around the world and learn the art of whaling on your own in the time it takes to plough your way through Moby Dick.

Chapter after chapter in this book plods by in which Melville agonizes over the question of whether whales are fish or mammals. Next, you are forced to grind through pages of discussion on how to coil rope for a harpoon. This is followed by a mind-numbingly uninteresting investigation into the properties of baleen.  I kid you not, right up to the final chapter, I kept returning to the title page to make sure I was reading Moby Dick, the novel, and not Moby Dick II:  Fate Worse than Death!, which would have been some sort of sequel Melville got published off the success of his original work (you know, the one that centered on that crazy captain chasing the scary whale).  I just couldn't believe that this colossal tome that just read like a textbook for a natural history class was actually the book that had become so famous.  And yet, every time I checked, the title page verified that this was the actual work of literary fame.

Eight chapters in, I remember thinking to myself:  "Is this just one of those boring prefaces that the author or editor often puts in front of a great work of literature?  I just read 200 pages of excruciating detail on the correct procedure for boiling a whale.  That followed on the heals of 300 pages of the correct way to cut it up.  We spent 150 pages talking about the sperm whale's jawbone before that."  I should have stopped reading at that point, but the truth is, those last 650 pages had perked up quite a bit since the first five chapters that covered the intricacies of finding a place to eat and sleep in Nantucket.  

Besides I knew I couldn't really be still reading the preface because every hundred pages or so, Melville did string together a sentence or two that seemed to be heading towards something like a plot and occasionally one of the famous characters would appear.  I remember the first time Melville introduced Ahab.  I thought to myself, "Okay, I think we are past the Whaling for Dummies section.  Now we are going to meet the famous, brooding, tortured soul of Captain Ahab!"

Wrong.  Captain Ahab is not brooding.  He isn't even particularly mysterious or profound.  If I were to sum up the character of Captain Ahab, I would describe him as grumpy.  For those who insist on a deeper philosophical interpretation to his character, I would be willing to say that he was probably too grumpy for his own good.  I can't go much further than that.   Certainly he doesn't care for Moby Dick much, but his anger towards that beast seems to be about the same kind of anger I feel for a chair leg that I stub my toe on.  I almost always get angry at the chair and kick it with my other foot when I do that and sometimes I will even go so far as to say to it: "Oh yeah?  How do you like it?" as I kick it.  This is Captain Ahab's personality in a nutshell.

Some people believe that if you start a book, you are obliged to finish it no matter how bad it turns out to be.  I don't hold with that argument myself but I made an exception for Moby Dick for two reasons:  1.  I knew that the whale was going to kill everybody in the end and I felt that I deserved to enjoy that, and 2. I wanted to make sure I read the entire book so I could tell people what happens at the end and save them from the same mistake I had made. Here is what happens:

After 700 pages of forgettable nautical and whaling instruction, in the last chapter the whale appears.  I have to admit that there is even a hint of excitement in the air when the whale shows up.  Certainly nothing to have you reaching for your heart medication, but actual activity is a rare commodity in the novel so you can't help but wake up a bit for the final scenes.  In fact, almost everything you have ever heard about Moby Dick occurs in these final ten or so pages:  the whale shows up, Captain Ahab tries to kill it and ends up dying on the whale's back stabbing it, screaming "Oh yeah?  How do you like it?" or something like that.  Then, in a final act of cruelty against humanity, the whale kills everyone else except the narrator.