Michelle's Reviews > Moby Dick

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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** spoiler alert ** Well, well, my first review of a "classic" book. How does it hold up? We-ell...
The good: The characters are sympathetic--or at least understandable--and the titular whale has a delightful air of mystery. The dialogue is natural, both written phonetically and understandable. The ending is exciting, though rather depressing, because the only survivor was the least developed person in the book. And we never did find out if Moby Dick himself survived the fight. When the actual whale hunts occur, the novel becomes downright pulse-pounding, especially with all the build-up to Moby Dick's appearance.
The bad: this book is a prime example of infodumping. What is infodumping? Large chunks of indigestible expository information meant to help the audience understand the background better. I counted: taking only chapters where nobody does anything, way too many of them just essays about whales, 37 of the 135 chapters in this book are nothing but information for the reader. I can tell that Mr. Melville loves whales with a passion that outshines the heat of a thousand suns, but really! Also, several times the book jumps into play format. This is never explained.
Ishmael himself is the least understandable of the main characters, and comes off as pretentious and wordy. All entries into his mind are the aforementioned whale essays, or occasionally hopping on his tolerance soapbox. It's sort of hard to believe him after the revelation that he's pretty sure a whale is a fish, though. There's a subplot about a the cabin boy, Pip, who goes crazy partway through the book, which just sort of peters out. Mr. Melville also tends to throw important details in after the fact, one example being that Ishmael gets thrown out of a whaling boat during the climactic battle, and thus survives. We don't find out it's him until the epilogue.
There's something very pretentious about this book. It feels as though Mr. Melville time-traveled to the future, learned how famous his book became, and then went back to finish it. There are entire chapters devoted to how the color white symbolizes almost everything in the universe, along with the preaching and whale anatomy.
In conclusion, Moby Dick is okay. Just okay. The speeches by Captain Ahab or Starbuck are the best parts of the book, but those could probably be found on the internet without slogging through all the confusing, outdated whale biology. Seriously, were editors not invented yet? Though Starbuck deserved so much better that what he got. Sniff.
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Craig Curtis I just finished this book too, and I completely agree with your review. The story itself is a compelling one, and the relationship between Captain Ahab and his first mate Starbuck is an intriguing one. Yet most of the other characters were underdeveloped, particularly the supposed protagonist, Ishmael.

I liked the opening portion of the book, where Ishmael is off to Nantucket to start his life as a whaler, and meets and befriends Queequeg. I liked the early development of their friendship, which had a good deal of warmth and surprisingly even humor. It made me very excited to see how things would develop in the story once they got to the Pequod.

Alas, once they got on board the ship, both characters, particularly Ishmael, all but disappear from the story. Obstensively, Ishmael is supposed to be the narrator, as the sole-surviving "eyewitness" to the voyage, and yet there are numerous elements in the story where Ishmael would have had no direct viewpoint (in Ahab and Starbuck's occasional arguments in the captain's cabin, for example, where the supposed narrator would never have been present).

More so, the story did a lot of explaining of characters' traits, rather than demonstrating them in the story itself. Rather than the reader see Starbuck as a thoughtful and level-headed man through his actions and words with the crew during the voyage, it simply takes a chapter to explain to the reader that he is this way and that we should just accept him as such (the same with the other two ship's mates, the three harpooners, and nearly every other character of significance).

But as you say, the biggest problem of all with the book is the chapters and chapters of essay-like sections about whales and whaling in general. Authors like Tolkien were consciencious enough to put this kind of supporting material safely into an appendicies at the end of the book. But Melville instead inserts them, sometimes seemingly randomly, right into the middle sections of the book, where they frequently grind the story to a complete halt.

I think there's something to the argument that the style of the narrative has to be taken with consideration to the time when it was written - in the 1850's there was of course no television or movies, photography was still in its infancy, and even paintings weren't easily reproduced for public consumption. It's entirely possible that a reader of the time had no internal picture of what exactly a whale or whaling in general was. The book spends a lot of time in these flowery, almost rambling asides trying to paint a verbal picture to a reader who might be conjuring the image in their mind's eye from a blank slate.

In any event, I think that the style really drags down the pacing of an otherwise good story, which could have used more character development and much, much better structuring. Personally, I think I bumped it up from 2 to 3 stars based on its era handicap, and also probably from a reputation bias (is this really considered to be the greatest American novel?).


Michelle As to the era of writing, I've read stuff from that time period and earlier, and the infodumping is not just a time period thing. Rambling maybe, but for example Don Quixote, about two hundred years prior, is vastly better, with exposition by actual, entertaining characters. Hence the two stars.


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