Moby Dick Book Review - Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere

Updated on September 29, 2019
Mel Carriere profile image

Postman/reviewer Mel Carriere was a sailor once, but he never pursued whales on the high seas, although his ship did accidentally hit one

Mel Carriere´s A-grade book report on Moby Dick, which he never read, was his first exposure to the principle that slick talking beats hard work any day.
Mel Carriere´s A-grade book report on Moby Dick, which he never read, was his first exposure to the principle that slick talking beats hard work any day. | Source

The Third Time Is The Charm

There is magic in the number three. A horse wins three races in a row and we festoon it with garlands. The third day rolls around and the dead rise from the tomb. A hockey player scores a three goal hat-trick and thrilled fans fling down octopi from the rafters, onto the ice. An especially superb woman is once, twice, three times a lady. Yes, human culture and mythology is fascinated with the number three. It is a perfect prime number that cannot be subdivided except by itself - that is, three divided by three becomes one. One godhead in three parts, if you will.

But outside of its a aesthetic, mathematical, and mythological appeal, is there any realistic value to the number three - does the expression the third time is the charm hold true in day to day living? Well, I cannot speak for others but anecdotally, in my own life, especially in that subdivision of it called Lunchtime Lit - the sacred half hour I spend parked in the shade, reading some great white whale of a book I review for you later, the number three has worked magic.

There are unscaleable mountains of books that exhaust one just to look at. I would have never attempted such imposing pinnacles, had Lunchtime Lit not made them accessible, providing an escalator to their snow-crowned summits. One such book was attempted and abandoned in the past, only to be resurrected here in Lunchtime Lit land, working in conjunction with that magical number three.

This title is Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. My junior year in high school I was assigned this leviathan for a book report. I think I read one chapter, yawned thrice, and put it down. Then, using the summary on the back cover and pulling out of context quotes randomly from the text, I penned a stellar book report that got me an A. This was my first exposure to the principle that slick talking beats hard work any day.

My second attempt to harpoon Moby Dick came about 15 years later. At this juncture I had decided that any reader who turns his ship about and runs when sighting the spout of the great white whale should make no claim to be a student of American literature. So I lowered the whaleboats and obtained a copy, only to become entangled among the spars, jibs and lines, forcing me to again abandon ship before coming to grips with the cetacean. Herman Melville did not just tell a story, but described whales and whaling in excruciating detail. My twentieth century, television-tempered attention span just wasn't ready for laborious, nineteenth century prose.

Another twenty years passed. Lunchtime Lit came into being, and much like those situation comedies I grew up watching in the 70s, the books I read were now being cut up into easily digestible half hour chunks. Being bottle fed like this, I found I could read anything. War and Peace was equal to Gilligan's Island, Don Quixote - Happy Days. I no longer shirked from the spectacle of a behemoth bounding in the briny deep. Instead I picked up my harpoon, got to the braces and squared in.

A coworker of mine actually shamed me into going whale hunting again, in violation of the 1982 International Whaling Commission moratorium. "Moby Dick is the best book ever," he swore. Of course, I was embarrassed that a landlubber who had never set foot upon an ocean going vessel would be able to wrestle this great epic of the sea into submission, whereas yours truly old salty dog could not.

My store of excuses exhausted, I knew it was time to cast off from Nantucket anew, vowing never to return to shore until the hold was either bursting with the spermaceti of the great white whale, or the timbers of my throttled ship had sunk to the bottom of the deep.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit is the slow and steady sit-com brain candy equivalent of literature, all books dissected into spoon-sized half hour chunks, minus the commercials. Lunchtime Lit adheres strictly to three rules that govern its course and conduct.

  1. All books are read only on Mel´s half hour postal lunch break.
  2. Lunchtime Lit books are never taken home for unauthorized, off the clock readings.
  3. Rules one and two are subject to change, should reviewer Mel Carriere determine it convenient to do so.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * ** ***

Book
Pages
Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
The Master and Margarita
394
140,350
7/26/2017
9/1/2017
20
Blood Meridian
334
116,322
9/11/2017
10/10/2017
21
Infinite Jest
1079
577,608
10/16/2017
4/3/2018
102
Wuthering Heights
340
107,945
4/4/2018
5/15/2018
21
Red Sorghum
347
136,990
5/16/2018
6/23/2018
22
Gormenghast
409
181,690
6/26/2018
8/6/2018
29
Moby Dick
643
206,052
8/8/2018
10/23/2018
45

*Fifteen other titles, with a total estimated word count of 3,393,158 and 461 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total, for better or for worse.

***If the dates are lagging, it is because I am still slogging along, trying to catch up after a prolonged sabbatical from reviewing. Four more books and I will be whole again.

Call Me Ishmael

I regret to say I didn't share my co-worker's enthusiasm for Moby Dick. This book and I have had a strained relationship from the beginning, and although it improved during the course of this reading, I can't say I was completely hooked this third go round.

As long as the novel is on solid ground it stays on solid ground. Once it loses sight of land it proves to have shaky sea legs. However, while safely harbored on this side of the horizon, it reads like a literary masterpiece. The sublime prose starts with the very first sentence, Call me Ishmael. An entire research paper could be written on these three words, and probably has been.

Notice how Melville doesn't write I am Ishmael, or My name is Ishmael. No, he distinctly says Call me Ishmael, as if telling us - call me what you want, just don't call me late for dinner. It doesn't matter what you call me but if you got to call me something call me Ishmael.

I am pretty sure Melville made this distinction on purpose, but the question is why. Is the narrator using an alias, writing under a cloak of secrecy like our own beloved Mel Carriere, for instance? Or is Ishmael not an individual entity at all but a symbol for all seamen who have pursued cetaceans on the high seas? A symbol labeled with the word Ishmael, for the sake of convenience.

But then again, Melville didn´t have to use a moniker as complicated and difficult to pronounce as Ishmael. He could have said Call me Bob, Call me John, or Call me irresponsible. Instead, he used the name Ismael and I don't think he just pulled it out of a hat.

Who was the original Ishmael and what was his significance? As opposed to the Koran, where the patriarch by this name is revered as the ancestor of Mohammed, in the Bible Ishmael is treated as the illegitimate son of Abraham, the child of his wife's servant girl, someone the book calls a wild donkey of a man. Ishmael lived as a disinherited outcast in the wilderness, roaming the wastelands in search of sustenance. I guess you can draw your own conclusions here why Herman Melville called his own vagabond, ship-hopping narrator by the same name.

We will encounter the use of Biblical names in Moby Dick again, and find they were not just pulled from Lansky's book of bitchin baby names, but used because they mean something.

The only crime committed by Moby Dick was to lick Ahab in a fair fight, this while the crusty captain was trying to shove a harpoon up his blowhole
The only crime committed by Moby Dick was to lick Ahab in a fair fight, this while the crusty captain was trying to shove a harpoon up his blowhole | Source

Truth To The Face of Falsehood

Moving past Ishmael, the novel continues to build momentum starting with sentence two, during a period when the Pequod is held up in port, replenishing for its mortal combat with Moby Dick. Here Melville treats us to what I think is the best sermon in the history of American Literature. Pity that this, what I believe to be the high water mark of the novel, occurs on only page 70 of 643. Father Mapple's hard hitting homily here is on the text beginning with the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah - 'And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.'

Mapple recounts the legendary voyage of Jonah the reluctant prophet, how he not only disobeyed God's command to preach repentance to the haughty Ninevites, but then sought to flee from God to the ends of the earth, boarding a ship to carry him to distant Spain. The ship sets sail and immediately encounters a deadly tempest that threatens to swamp it. The sailors cast lots, divine Jonah to be the cause of their peril, and throw him overboard, where he is swallowed by a whale. In the belly of the whale Jonah prays for repentance, is disgorged, then travels at last to dreaded Nineveh to denounce its inhabitants for their wickedness. Jonah's course correction is Father Mapple's lesson to his seafaring congregation, as emphasized in the finale to his brilliant oratory.

...the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ´vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;´ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten-his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean-Jonah did the Almighty´s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

Strange Bedfellows?

Although I was thrilled by the ring of truth in Father Mapple's words, the rest of the voyage was anticlimactic. Moby Dick reads like a very heavy work of experimental fiction. It was not a best seller during its authors lifetime, and I can see why - it has a definite post-modern feel. The narrative is unconventional and disjointed, not moving in the typical flow expected of nineteenth century literature. Some of its 135 chapters are written as a dramatic script, others are four or five sentences long.

Nor do the characters conduct themselves in what I fancy to be conventional nineteenth century fashion. First and foremost is the odd relationship between the narrator Ismael and the harpooner Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal. The pair seem to make for strange bedfellows, but bedfellows they literally are, sharing a bunk at an Inn in Puritan New England, a situation that might raise some Victorian eyebrows, or perhaps not. Maybe two grown men not brothers sleeping underneath the same sheets was more "normal" in those times than it is today. Idiosyncratic as it is, this early budding liaison between Ishmael and Queequeg is captivating reading.

Perhaps homosexuality was such a taboo back then that Melville could write about one man waking up in the unbreakable embrace of another, with nobody daring to think bodily fluids were exchanged under cover of night. But you can't tell me that having Ismael assist Queequeg, dare I call him Queer-queg, in a burnt offering ritual to his pagan idol, didn't cause the grannies reading at home to go into a swoon. Could it be that this tendency to shock sensibilities is why the novel didn't play well before the home crowd in the prudish United States?

We can only wonder, with disappointment, why Melville did not continue to deepen the Ishmael-Queequeg bond after the Peqod loses sight of land, where the two apparently drift off to find new bunk buddies.

I also wish Melville would have further explored the reasons behind manic Captain Ahab's obsession with killing the great white whale. Was his insatiable lust for revenge really only about losing his limb at the knee, and having to hobble about on a whalebone peg-leg for the rest of his days? The only crime committed by Moby Dick was to lick Ahab in a fair fight, this while the crusty captain was trying to shove a harpoon down his blowhole. You can hardly expect Ahab to harbor such a delerium of ill will because his prey defended itself. Could Ahab's angst spring from the lessening of his manhood the amputation caused in the eyes of his young wife and child? Melville only hints at the source of his fixation.

Did the odd relationship between Ismael and Queequeg, dare I call him Queer-queg, cause the grannies reading at home to go into a swoon?
Did the odd relationship between Ismael and Queequeg, dare I call him Queer-queg, cause the grannies reading at home to go into a swoon? | Source

Not Worth The Paper It Was Printed Upon?

It could be that its forays into the forbidden kept Moby Dick from being praised in its author's lifetime, despite its cutting edge execution. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, when the book first appeared in 1851, nobody got it. Home grown critics, and a few on the other side of the pond, received the novel with scorn. Here are a few examples.

  • The Boston Post said of Moby Dick "'The Whale' is not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper.¨
  • The weekly magazine Literary World bemoaned its ¨inappropriate opinions on religions,¨criticizing what "must be to the world the most sacred associations of life violated and defaced."
  • The London Spectator wrote that Ahab's long soliloquies "induce weariness or skipping."

As a high school junior in the year 1980, I tended to agree with the latter opinion. In fact, my entire prep career consisted of a great deal of weariness and skipping, as in skipping class, skipping homework, skipping complicated novels. Nonetheless, rounding the stormy Cape of Good Hope to do battle with the Leviathan once more, this time armed with a more mature, experienced mind, I now see the value and importance of the book, even though it still isn't my favorite .

Literary criticism eventually vindicated Moby Dick. Melville's books were reprinted after his death in 1891, and his reputation slowly built a head of steam. By the 1920s there was a full bore Melville revival spouting - perhaps to the delight, probably more to the chagrin of High School literature students. Moby Dick´s fame was boosted by English author DH Lawrence´s declaration that it was ¨an epic of the sea that no man has equalled.¨

This delayed recognition for Herman Melville and his masterpiece Moby Dick more than qualifies him for inclusion in Lunchtime Lit´s ¨Pointless, Posthumous Hall of Fame.¨ This exclusive venue is populated by a growing throng of writers who achieved their greatest successes after their deaths, mostly to the benefit of already filthy rich publishing houses. Here is the list to date:

Lunchtime Lit Pointless, Posthumous Hall of Fame

Author
Book
Fate
Vasily Grossman
Life And Fate
Died before his best book was published
John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces
Committed suicide before his best book was published
Mikhail Bulgakov
The Master and Margarita
Died before his best book was published
David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest
Committed suicide after his best book was published
Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights
Died young, before achieving recognition
Mervyn Peake
Gormenghast
Died young, before achieving recognition
Herman Melville
Moby Dick
Died before achieving recognition
It could be that its forays into the forbidden kept Moby Dick from being recognized in Herman Melville´s lifetime, despite its cutting edge brilliance
It could be that its forays into the forbidden kept Moby Dick from being recognized in Herman Melville´s lifetime, despite its cutting edge brilliance | Source

Prophecy And Presumption

This third reading I either started to understand what Melville wants us to take away from Moby Dick, or I drifted further off course. Three is Company or three strikes you're out. A key issue is the significance of the deranged sea captain. Unlike the Jonah Mapple harangued us on, Ahab never repents of his hubris. He presumes to be mightier than God himself, God as represented in the form of the white whale, pure and unblemished as the sacrificial lamb. Certain versions of the Bible read that presumption is the sin of idolatry. Hence, it cannot be coincidental that Melville named his protagonist after the idolatrous, Baal-worshipping Ahab, king of Israel. Nor is the punishment for idolatry here different than that in the Old Testament, as we see Ahab smashed to bits by the whale instead of being protected in its belly, as penitent Jonah was.

I draw another important conclusion from Melville as well, my friends. In hearkening back to Father Mapple´s sermon, I declare that we who dare to express our opinions in writing are the modern day prophets, the sometimes reluctant Jonahs. Don´t confuse prophets with seers and oracles who peer into a crystal ball, or read obscure omens from tea leaves or wrinkled palm skin. These practices have nothing to do with prophecy. Prophecy also has very little to do with religion, but a lot to do with justice. And what is justice, but weighing words and deeds in the balance to arrive at truth. So although we might not eat locusts in the desert or stand trembling before the thrones of the powerful, every serious writer is a prophet whose mission is to correct and to illuminate. To echo Father Mapple, ¨To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!¨ is our prophetic mission.

Leviathan Levity

Questions & Answers

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      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        5 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Eric maybe you were a swabbie in a former life, and they made you walk the plank. I'm pretty sure I was a great white whale, but I got demoted and ended up a mailman.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Something really strangearoo. I think of this book often. Perhabs a mental o recalll helps me understand battles. I do not get it.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Excellent contribution to the discussion, Road Monkey. You make great points. I suppose I am examining 19th century life through 21st century lenses. But then again, could Melville have been hinting at something that took place between lonely men on very long sea voyages?

        You are right about novel serialization in newspapers and magazines of that era. It didn't happen just in England but in all countries. War and Peace by Tolstoy appeared in serial form first, but I am not sure about Moby Dick. If so it would explain its rambling prose.

        I appreciate your additions to the conversation.

      • RoadMonkey profile image

        RoadMonkey 

        6 weeks ago

        I read Moby Dick many years ago, long before I became a mother, never mind a granny but the two men in bed together scene made no impression. Beds were scarce in those days, it was common to share. I know the feeling of long, rambling prose that does not advance the story: I found that in Charles Dickens, whose books were first published as serials in magazines. He was paid by the word, so padded the stories out! I had to learn to skim those bits, if I wanted to finish the story. I enjoyed the film of Moby Dick as a child, which impelled me to read the book.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Linda my teachers never gave me an A for effort, which is why I tried to get away with as little effort as possible. Good luck on Moby Dick. You might be one of those who falls in love with it. Thanks for dropping in!

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Bill, maybe the third time will be the charm for you too. Moby Dick is a complicated book. Learned men avoid it, but some blue collar guys love it. Thanks for dropping in!

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I've never read Moby Dick. I'm going to at least try to now that I've read your review. Thanks for reading the book or sections of the book three times, Mel. Your effort is admirable!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        6 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        yep, high school it was...and I hated it! Tried it again ten years after...hated it! I'll give it a third try,on your recommendation, but I'm not hopeful. :)

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Eric I wish I would have thought of that name similarity thing first because I could have somehow incorporated it. Being the lawyer you are, now if I borrow it you'll slam me for copyright infringement.

        Have a pleasant evening there on the wrong side of the lake.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Mills I can't recall if you have reviewed In the Heart of the Sea, the true story that Moby Dick is loosely based on. I believe Melville is portrayed in that film. I would like to see it, now that I have cleared this Melville hurdle.

        Maybe you are right that Moby Dick's popularity will wane, but Melville writes on timeless themes, and I think this will stand the test. Thanks for dropping in.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        6 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Mel? Or is that Melville? I do not read Book Reviews. But I try to read everything Mel.

      • profile image

        Pat Mills 

        6 weeks ago from East Chicago, Indiana

        On one hand, Melville didn't live to see his work embraced. On the other hand, I'm sure many of the popular authors during Melville's life are long forgotten. I've read other Melville works, and the situations often stand for man's struggles and obligations. Author popularity, however, tends to go in generational cycles. One day, someone will likely say what critics were saying in 1851. Thanks for enduring.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        John, I think it was honest old Abe Lincoln who said a classic is a book everyone praises but nobody reads. Moby Dick certainly fits this bill. Even my highly literary son admits to only reading the comic book version. You and I tried to do an end run around the great white whale, only to finally get swamped by it.

        Thanks for dropping in with your insights.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        James, there are a lot of brain candy books that are universally loved, but maybe the mark of a real great one for the ages, like Moby Dick, is that it illicits different responses in different people. Some like you love it, others hate it, still others like me make an uneasy truce, acknowledging its power while disapproving of its methods.

        Thank you for your very interesting contribution to the discussion.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        6 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

        Well, Mel, this time you reviewed a book I have read. Like you it took me more than one attempt, and a reading later in life to fully appreciate. I, also, took shortcuts in my school book reviews, reading maybe the first sentence of each chapter and borrowing a summary from the library instead of trudging through books like this and King Lear or Julius Caesar.

        Actually this book came to my shelves as part of a literary classics collection I subscribed to each month through Reader’s Digest.

        It isn’t the most riveting read but does have it’s moments. Good review once again.

      • justthemessenger profile image

        James C Moore 

        6 weeks ago from The Great Midwest

        Finally, a lunchtime lit book that I've actually read, albeit years ago. I remember liking this book. One thing I remember is his symbolic use of Ahab as the Captain's name. Ahab, the biblical king married the enemy. His wife Jezebel came from the Hebrews arch nemesis the Canaanites. Jezebel is the one who chased the prophet Elijah into hiding. Today, her name is used as vernacular to describe a mean spirited woman. For some reason, the passage where Queequeg goes into a trance while he worships his wooden idol, stays with me.

        I believe it to be the classic people say it is.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Pamela, I think the vast majority of the millions of copies of Moby Dick sold since Melville's death were to indifferent literature students like me, and possibly you. Then again, maybe you were one of those good students I should have sat behind, to copy off your paper.

        I really appreciate your nice words. Thanks for dropping in!

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        6 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Eric, at work one of my Mexican-American buddies calls me Great White. I hope he is referring to my Caucasian grandeur, and not because I am a Big "insert second word of book title here."

        Thank you for your complimentary words. I am going to check later to see if you have penned one of those salty but satisfying Father Mapple like sermons of yours.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        6 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        Your full analysis of this book is very interesting. I believe I read this book in high school and I remember the movie. I had not considered the significance of the names.

        Your lunch-time reading obviously was not as enjoyable as it is sometimes, but you still read the book. I think your well-written article with your keen observations is very good.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        6 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Hmm? My early girlfriends called me diminutive along these lines. To harpoon someone has always been a great turn of phrase because of Herman.

        I reckon they call them "classics" because in the term classical we return to the music over and over again. Sorry but I am sneezing due do to the dust enveloping this book from the shelf from hell that I keep to re-read.

        Lower me boat into the tempest of life, just maybe on my third try some dude will come and calm the waters I want to walk upon, sans sharks.

        You create a world of blessing from words. And artist you are.

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