Jamie's Reviews > Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
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Aug 03, 2008

did not like it
Read in August, 2007

So, Herman Melville's Moby Dick is supposed by many to be the greatest Engligh-language novel ever written, especially among those written in the Romantic tradition. Meh.

It's not that I don't get that there's a TON of complexity, subtlety, and depth to this book about a mad captain's quest for revenge against a great white whale. And on the surface it's even a pretty darn good adventure story. And, honestly, Melville's prose is flowing, elegant, and as beautiful as any writing can possibly be. It's magnificent, actually.

It's just that any enjoyment or satisfaction I got out of the book was overshadowed by the tedious, largely pointless stretches of encylopedic descriptions about the whaling industry. Melville strikes me as one of those people who would corner you at a party and talk incessantly about whaling, whaling ships, whales, whale diet, whale etymology, whale zoology, whale blubber, whale delacies, whale migration, whale oil, whale biology, whale ecology, whale meat, whale skinning, and every other possible topic about whales so that you'd finally have to pretend to have to go to the bathroom just to get away from the crazy old man. Only he'd FOLLOW YOU INTO THE BATHROOM and keep talking to you about whales while peering over the side of the stall and trying to make eye contact with you the whole time.

Look, it's not that I don't get it. Or at least some of it. I get, for example, that Ishmael's description of the absurdities of whale classification systems provide a backdrop against which to project the recurring theme of mankind's doomed quest for complete understanding of truths that are ineffable and forever hidden (sometimes literally) under the surface. I get that. I just wish the guy didn't feel like he had to take it to such absurd lengths. I do not need twenty pages about how to properly coil a harpoon line! I can see why most people don't make it through this book without judicious skimming.

Still, I feel like I accomplished something and that I can now nod sagely the next time someone makes an oblique reference to Captain Ahab, mentions the Pequod, or refers to something as "that person's Great White _______." And chances are they skimmed more than I did, anyway.
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02/04 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 52) (52 new)


Michael This is the precise reason I gave this book only two stars. Those encyclopedic descriptions really limited my enjoyment of the book - I understand their purpose, to a point, but I think Melville took his knowledge much too far.


Mick Glasgow I disagree completely....I feel that an inquiring mind will gain so much from his in depth descriptions of whaling....The chapters are so short and easy to digest....a person at a party never lets up....Melville gives small doses....perfect. And whaling is very interesting to me. Serious adventure these days I feel is not properly comprehended----


Michael I wouldn't call whaling descriptions "serious adventure," even if you do like them. I think Melville crosses a line between giving information that aids the telling of the story and documenting facts.




message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

CETOLOGY! HE'D CORNER YOU AT A PARTY AND DROWN YOU IN BORING DIATRIBES ON CETOLOGY! IT'S THE TITLE OF A CHAPTER!


Anastasia Absolutely agree with you, still loved the book. Those stretches put me into some sort of slow motion. There is no action really, until the last 4 pages of the book. So if those descriptions are deleted the magic would be somehow lost.


Jeff T. Regarding the common Cetology chapter complaint: So, in an 800+ page novel, 18 pages of background information is too much to handle? (At any rate, it's certainly not a "diatribe.") I would love to talk with someone as interesting as Ishmael (or Melville) at a party!

By the way, the Cetology chapter also includes sentences like "But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try." Drops the jaw, but not for a yawn.

One more thing about the whaling chapters: They aren't without context. Notice how riveting the surrounding chapters are--the point is to make you sensitive to information, to add to the texture of narrative. The novel is absolutely loaded with action, regardless of whether harpoons are being thrown. What we find, if we read, is the action of language and the mind's comprehension of language.

Better luck next time, and do yourself a favor: make sure there's a next time. You might not always be so impatient.




Rich If Herman Melville approached me at a party and wanted to talk about whales, chances are, I'd listen.


message 8: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam Um, I think that the description of whales and whaling made it a better read- because it is easier to understand characters when you understand something about what it is that they are actually doing.
I doubt very much that Herman Melville would corner you at a party and engage you about whales. You would be lucky to get Herman Melville to *go* to a party that you were attending.
Something that I think people take for granted when it comes to books is that there is often too much deviation from reality and not enough of the complexity of the narrator's personality. The way that Herman wrote the story made it seem more like a real person was telling me about the Pequod and captain Ahab's obsession, and not some perfect human being without oratory flaw or divergence from plot. People who tell stories put their own personality into it, and writers who write about people telling stories should try harder to maintain a personality in a real sense through the words of that chosen character.
For God's sake he was writing as if he were a whaler telling a story; he wasn't some *dude* at an artsy party drinking an apple-martini. If you don't want any side info about whales- then don't read Moby Dick. On the other hand, if you do want to learn something about the MAIN SUBJECT of a book- then a good thing is to read it through.
This is the precise reason that I am mainly a criticizer of critics... At least Herman Melville set out to write a book instead of judging other people's hard work. Think about it.

Postscript: skimmers are NOT readers... merely in my humble opinion, of course.


Alicia Martell Thank God I am not the only person who disliked this book. I found much of it to be bombastic and unnecessary, and though the skeleton and meat of the story were wonderful the added clothes and accessories were what got to me. Endless exposition is not something an author could get away with today, nor should they. It's insulting to the reader's intelligence and puts the plot on standstill while the author digresses. If I read a novel about bears, I would not expect the author to stop the story and give a chapter long lecture on bear anatomy, bear behavior, bear traps, and the best ways to kill a bear. One hopes that any of these facts that are useful to the plot would be inconspicuously inserted elsewhere, not set aside and hammered into the poor reader's noggin. Such wordiness was a little much even then, I think. Even Dickens was not quite so long-winded.


Luann I was tempted to "unlike" your review just so I could like it again! But I'll let my first vote stand. Thanks for a great review!


Rolando It's pretty sad how many people read Moby Dick to fit in. You don't HAVE to read it just for the sake of "nodding obliquely" in conversations...! Gosh, just say you didn't read it.

By the way, the whole encyclopedic stuff is tied up with the nineteenth century concept of the novel.


message 12: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Burt Jeff wrote: "Regarding the common Cetology chapter complaint: So, in an 800+ page novel, 18 pages of background information is too much to handle? (At any rate, it's certainly not a "diatribe.") I would love to..."

Well said


message 13: by Capsguy (last edited Mar 07, 2011 07:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Capsguy Yeah sure, there may have been only 18 pages or on that particular chapter, but........

How many pages alone were dedicated to the analysis of the attempts at painting sperm whales? How many pages were dedicated to the rope used in harpoons? How many pages were dedicated to the economy of whale hunting? And I am sure there were plenty of other chapters about the physiognomies and general anatomy of whales that well exceeded 18 pages.

Yeah, you can see where I am going.

The book could've been written as effectively without all of these details, Melville's intentions of the cliché "We all have our white whale" is so blatantly obvious that bombarding us with useless, and yes, it is useless information is only beneficial for serving pseudo-intellectuals who are joining the crowd in putting this on a pedestal and denying any possibility of fault within it.

If it was your attempt to take out one small part of the unnecessary details of the novel and try to make it appear as if the remainder of the story was focused on plot, character development etc., you are sorely mistaken and the only people who will agree with you are people who:

1) Did not read the book
or
2) Skim-read it


message 14: by Lola (new)

Lola It's about a man's quest in confronting his own homosexuality actually...


Margaretmcmillan This was hilarious! Thank you for such an enjoyable description. Hopefully no one will give you too much grief about expressing your honest opinion. I gave the book five stars, because I find that stuff (by which I mean, whaling, whaling ships, whales, whale diet, whale etymology, whale zoology, whale blubber, whale delacies, whale migration, whale oil, whale biology, whale ecology, whale meat, whale skinning, etc) fascinating. However, I do worry that if I read too much Melville, I will also turn into a batty old woman who corners people in bathrooms. Thank you for the warning.


message 16: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Lynch Jamie, I applud you for reading through, given you don't find cetology intersting, which I really did. Thus I've never really skimmed in three readings. And you exaggerate nerly as much as M goes on about eehales. The Chapter The Line is 3 and half psges long. You coul've pointed out how bite size most of the chapters are ehich makes it very manageable reding in a very real sense.

I guess I can't correct typos.
Land ho mate!


message 17: by Ross (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ross Some people have a more sophisticated appreciation of great literature than some others. Why someone would take so much effort to display that they are one of the "others" is surprising.


Adi Narayan Mandalemula I like this book really a lot, but the third paragraph of this review is one of most hilarious pieces I've ever read. I laugh full while reading that paragraph. Well, said. :)


message 19: by Andrew (new) - added it

Andrew XD Funny stuff. I'm only on page 5 and already it seems he likes to over-describe stuff...A LOT.


message 20: by Aj (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aj The encyclopedic passages are satire. There is no actual information in this chapter, he wrote it so you would hate it. Melville would be laughing his ass off at this thread.


message 21: by Aj (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aj That man who would pin you in a corner and talk to you incessantly about whaling is exactly the guy he's making fun of.


message 22: by Dan (new) - added it

Dan Fionte That guy who would pin you in the corner and talk to you incessantly about whaling (in my case geology which is even more boring), just happens to be my best friend, so I'm rather amused by this novel so far.


message 23: by Martha (last edited Jul 14, 2012 06:52AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Martha Sam wrote: "Um, I think that the description of whales and whaling made it a better read- because it is easier to understand characters when you understand something about what it is that they are actually doi..."

Sam wrote: "Um, I think that the description of whales and whaling made it a better read- because it is easier to understand characters when you understand something about what it is that they are actually doi..."

Right on! I agree with you!! I do have to say though, I am going through a tough chapter (for me) right now -- The Chart -- and I ain't skimmin'!! I have been on this chapter for a while. The Whiteness of the Whale was very grueling. But it's funny, after reading it thoroughly, I really liked it and probably will remember that chapter the most. It was very powerful. I agree with you, skimming is not reading!! Once you REALLY read Moby Dick, you have to feel a great accomplishment! Like I said I am only on the Chart, so I have a way to go.


message 24: by Liz (new) - rated it 2 stars

Liz We read this at the University of VA in an English class I took and the Professor literally told us we could disregard many of the middle chapters of the book. Although the beginning was pretty good, the book in general just never hooked me - pun intended.


message 25: by Phil (new) - rated it 4 stars

Phil Let's write to Melville and tell him how to rewrite his book! We can sign it "The Internet".


Martha Hahahahaha that was a good one!


Tammy I'm trudging through this, it's killing me to keep reading it , but I can't abandon a book when I'm this far in (475pages), the parts about Ahab and the whale are excellent, the writing is amazing, but good god.. I don't care about what the ropes are made out of. At this point, I just want it to end already.


Martha Wow, wish I was on page 475. I'm at the Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish chapter. As I am reading, it's really not so bad, but when I look back to see how much I read in a half hour that's when I realize how slow I am at reading this. I am a slow poke!!


message 29: by Bukk (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bukk Ah, you skimmed it. That explains why you thought he was just going on about whales for no reason, and didn't notice that he was actually drawing some pretty great connections between different aspects of whales and human philosophy, complex relationships between humanity and animals, and critiquing our assumed superiority over everything.


The Black Hat Writer This is the greatest and most accurate description I've ever read about Moby Dick. It echoes my sentiments exactly. It's nice to see someone speak true about this novel instead of kissing it's back pages because some group of literary bores think it's a flawless book. Bravo!


Stephen I beg to differ, if you did "GET IT", I dare say you would have given it more than 1 star!


Martha Now, now Jacob, I am the farthest from a literary bore you can imagine. And, I couldn't care less what anyone thinks about me reading it - not looking for accolades. I truly loved this novel. I struggled through it, yes - it wasn't a breeze read, but the gems that were hidden deep within the book were worth every second I labored through it.


The Black Hat Writer If not for the whaling essays, I would have liked it better. I don't mind insight and education into certain topics put into a book--I very much enjoyed Tolstoy's philosophies on war in War and Peace--Melville's lessons on whaling were just really dull to me and dragged the story down. Unlike Tolstoy in War and Peace, Melville's whaling lessons just seemed to be tossed around whenever and wherever and kept going and going. It was very frustrating to me and took away from the story. I understand that there WAS a point and connection parallel to the tale, but it was just too much at times.


message 34: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam Going back over these comments I'm just going to add this to what I said a long time ago...

Throw away all the other stuff and just let's agree that this opinion about the whaling parts being whatever and what have you is not the God's proclaimed TRUTH of the book. That is an OPINION to which everyone is entitled, but that doesn't make those who don't adhere to it unintelligent or in any way less because of the opinion they have.
Why people would take someone else's appreciation of something as an opportunity to judge them, I'll never understand.

The fact is that a lot of people who criticize acclaimed things (without respect for anything good about what brought a thing to be acclaimed) are doing exactly the same thing as those who boast their love for a thing like this in order to be accepted. It is another attempt to seem intelligent; don't undress it of its hypocrisy. There are people who say that they admire things for the wrong reasons and there are people who criticize things for the wrong reasons. There are also people who admire for the right reasons and people who constructively criticize from a position of good intent.

Plainly, if you have made no attempt to appreciate a thing first then you have NO place criticizing it. If you did put forth effort and still find a point to address a criticism then that's another thing. Still, don't parade your opinions as if they are gospel, don't put down everyone whose opinion is not the same as yours, or at least don't expect not to be judged in return for it.

Thank you.


message 35: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam Capsguy wrote: "Yeah sure, there may have been only 18 pages or on that particular chapter, but........

How many pages alone were dedicated to the analysis of the attempts at painting sperm whales? How many pages..."


You seem to have joined that crowd of people who like to turn their noses up at "the crowd" as if we don't all look like a blot in space. You're in there too, buddy... I hate to break the news to you.
Also, I don't know if you've been informed of this either but people are allowed to appreciate this book differently from you so persecuting them just makes you stick out and not for your intellect.
If it was your attempt to make us all think that you are the height of expertise in appreciating literature, then you are sorely mistaken in that expectation.
Your comment could've been written as effectively without all that disrespect for everyone who has a different opinion from you.


message 36: by Chad (last edited Jul 17, 2014 02:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chad I second those who say the Cetology chapters are not offering "background information." The whale itself is a symbol (most notably for God or Nature) and Ishmael is using every tool at his disposal to comprehend it--science, religion, history, art, literature, law, etc., etc.--none of which can ultimately satisfy his search. Moby-Dick is a story about Ishmael's spiritual journey, not his physical "adventures at sea."

This could be illustrated any number of ways. The pattern repeats over and over. For instance, Chapter 60 is ostensibly about whale lines; it purports to be describing the rope that whalers use to catch their prey. But in fact it is an elaborate build-up for a meditation about mortality. The chapter ends:

"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side."

Likewise, the "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish" chapter is not really about "the laws and regulations of the whale fishery." It is a metaphor for the plight of the world:

"What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?"

Melville is a literary ninja. While you think he is talking about one thing, he sneaks up from behind and blows your mind.

In the maligned "Cetology" chapter, Ishmael, "waiving all argument," declares "that the whale is a fish [instead of a mammal]." Background information?? He is rejecting established science and building his own scheme of classification. He is not a even reliable narrator (what is his real name anyway?), but he operates on his own terms. In fact, he rejects anything that resembles dogma--even the meaning of the color "white" (!!). He is trying to escape society (both literally and figuratively) and the easy conventions that it offers, in order to find for himself the answers to life's questions.

It is significant that Ishmael alludes to suicide right in Chapter 1. By going to sea, he is attempting to come to grips with the meaning of his own existence; to understand his relationship to an incomprehensible universe. He is hunting for himself. So, incidentally, is the rest of the crew. It is no coincidence that Ahab physically resembles Moby Dick. Or that pipe-smoking Stubb kills a whale that "looked like a portly burgher smoking his pipe."

Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."

This is a powerful book. It may not be for everybody, but for those attuned to it, it can change lives.


message 37: by Chad (last edited Jul 18, 2014 11:48AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chad Capsguy wrote: "Melville's intentions of the cliché 'We all have our white whale' is so blatantly obvious...

It is foolish to criticize Melville for using an "obvious cliché" considering that he is the one who invented it. Nor do I even agree that that was his intention, let alone that he should be faulted for it. The Cliffs Notes interpretation is a lot more faithful than the oversimplified (and cliché) Urban Dictionary one.


Hobbeldehoy i didn't skim any of it. but did take a while to hack through it.


Colleen Browne So Jamie- Since you appreciate the book so much doesn't it deserve more than 1 star?


message 40: by Ethan (new) - rated it 1 star

Ethan Davis Everything you said in this review is spot on.


message 41: by Drew (new) - added it

Drew Thank you. I really appreciate negative reviews like this. It goes to show just how dedicated the author was to illustrate his point without worrying about people who want an easy read. This affirms my impression of Melville and makes me want to read it all the more.


message 42: by Ossi (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ossi I think long encelopedic descriptions about the wales is just a trick. I mean if you go deep into human anatomy you start to apreciate it more.


message 43: by Patrick (new)

Patrick McFarland Like Verne, Melville is writing for an audience that had little access to the world other than the written word. He could not take for granted that his audience had the faintest notion of whales, the whaling industry, or the workings of a whaling ship. Hell, most of them had likely never seen the ocean even in photographs. What we would consider long winded, tedious descriptions, Melville would have considered an absolute necessity. Yes, to a twenty-first century reader Moby Dick might have some serious lags but overall, the story is a good one.


Rodwen I was especially enjoying the chapter purely about the colour white. What a classic!


message 45: by Drew (new) - added it

Drew Rodwen wrote: "I was especially enjoying the chapter purely about the colour white. What a classic!"

I totally agree. That is one of my favorite chapters. Truly profound.


Marina Lopez I enjoyed reading this thread.. I agree most closely with Sam's take on both the book and the experience of reading it. I am reading Melville for the first time at 54. I am so tickled that there is still so much greatness that is new for me to ' discover.'


Orhan Kaunis I think the comic book version would suit some.


message 48: by Ed (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ed Boyle Thank you. I am so tired of reading how Melville is the greatest writer and the Moby Dick is the greatest book. I get the complexity and depth but really, chapter after chapter on the different types of whales? It was good for one thing, bed time reading because it put me to sleep. The movie is just so much better as is the real story of the Essex.


Thomas Jacob Jr. lol. What pride.


message 50: by Kaya (new) - rated it 1 star

Kaya Orhan wrote: "I think the comic book version would suit some."

I don't know of a comic book but you might try reading "Mocha Dick" which is the 1839 journal story which Melville got the plot for his 1851 book from. It may not be quite so full of whale symbolism, etc. but it gives the basic plot points.

Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific


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