Rachael is a self-published author and blogger in central Illinois who has been writing about entertainment topics since 2010.
Moby Dick is one of those books that people might feel is no longer relevant, is hard to read, or too long. It was not written in today's world of Twitter and flash fiction, where the advice for writers is that every scene must move the plot forward. Today's top-selling novels are usually fast-paced quick reads, with just enough description to set the scene.
By contrast, Moby Dick is full of passages of descriptions of things like whale biology (some of which is no longer accurate) and the rigors of life at sea. In the middle, it's more about what life at sea is like than about the plot. But I still found it an intriguing, fascinating, enjoyable read, despite thinking I wouldn't enjoy it because of its reputation.
So, who would like Moby Dick and what do you get from it as an entertainment experience?
Describing the Life of a Sailor
I was at first not interested in Moby Dick because I live a very, very long way away from the ocean, and I thought reading about sailing would be boring. But when I actually sat down with the book anyway (thanks, quarantine), I was pleasantly surprised. The passages I thought would bore me actually ended up giving me a sense of adventure, danger, and mystery. It provided the sense of escape that I usually love about science fiction and fantasy novels. It also gives one the sense of exploration. The dark seas and the dark skies weigh the sailors down with gloom, uncertainty, and the horror of the unknown. You feel that pressure they're under as you go on a journey with them.
It's about the harsh struggle to survive. This book made me appreciate the role sailors play in commerce, even now that we don't use whale oil. The lives of these brave people affect the whole world. It's a lonely, tough profession. But it's also full of beauty. The main character and narrator Ishmael is drawn to the sea, telling the reader he gets a powerful urge to set sail whenever he's been on land for too long. The "dense, boring passages where nothing happens" are parts of the book I actually really liked, because they are descriptions with rich detail about why Ishmael loves the sea. They take us into his world and let us experience the sea as he does. If you grew up on a farm a million miles from the ocean, it's interesting to hear the perspective of someone who lives a very alien lifestyle. I was also taken in by the narrator's passion for the subject, as passion is often infectious.
A Timeless Tale of Destructive Revenge
"White whale" is now in popular language as a metaphor for any intense, all-consuming, obsessive desire for revenge. It describes a hatred that destroys the person inside. Such that they hurt themselves more than they hurt the one they seek revenge against. It speaks to the power of the novel that this meaning, the central metaphor of the story, is widely understood and used. It's a powerful symbol. But familiarity through pop culture is not enough to deeply appreciate the story's power.
There's no replacement for the feeling of actually reading the story and having the emotional experiences of characters endangered by the madness of their captain. It's an uncomfortable, challenging emotional experience, but I think that's what makes it a powerful story.
Anti-Racism and Interracial Friendship
Moby Dick also offers sailors' camaraderie, which seems like an antidote to the racism and xenophobia we usually associate with the past. The main character, Ishmael, forms a close relationship (some might say with homosexual subtext) to Queequeg, a Pacific Island native harpooner. Their friendship is central to the novel, and Queequeg has a deep emotional connection to Ishmael. This seems profoundly anti-racist because it's about how such a close friendship can cross racial lines.
The novel also shows sailors of almost every nationality living in together on the ship. Though Ishmael thinks his friend's religion is strange, he admires Queequeg and values him as a person. Sailors experience multiculturalism and international cooperation every day. They don't have the luxury of isolating themselves, and they interact with every sort of person in the world. I think that makes this novel, though it is dated in some ways, seem more timeless than many of its contemporaries. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time.
A Novel That Speaks Eternal Truths
So should you read Moby Dick?
It takes a certain level of patience for length and a slow-moving story, although it has many short chapters. It is intriguing in the beginning, and very exciting toward the end. I thought I wouldn't like it. I don't normally enjoy long reads or 19th century prose. But I came to realize that length is not the issue with books, it's whether you enjoy reading them. If you enjoy the story, you will want to return to the book often and regularly, quickly finishing it. But if you don't, it will take you a long time to finish it, if you ever do, even if the book is short.
So if you're thinking of starting other novels with intimidating word counts like Les Miserables or War and Peace, I suggest at least giving them a chance. If you like it, you will keep reading effortlessly, and the length will not be a problem. Moby Dick is a beautiful novel that, while obviously a product of its time period, feels like it speaks eternal truths. It's an amazing, emotionally captivating journey that you go on along with the narrator. Like sailing itself, it can get boring, but it always brings you back with excitement, adventure, and an experience of the harrowing nature of conditions at sea.
© 2021 Rachael Lefler
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 30, 2021:
I've seen Moby Dick on TV, but never read the book. I'd love to though, and your review has helped. Thanks.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 30, 2021:
I read Moby Dick many decades ago. While long, it did capture my interest as it did yours.