This week marks the anniversary of the publication in 1851 of Herman Melville’s most famous novel, ‘Moby Dick.’ The novel has since developed into a classic of the English language. The tale of a captain driven mad in his hunt for a white whale has been adopted into popular culture, with a host of tributes, parodies and adaptations being produced since the book’s first publication. Surprisingly, it was met with a muted reception upon its initial publication, and viewed as something of a low point in Melville’s fledgling writing career.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Ishmael, a crew member on the whaling ship Pequod. Once employed by the Pequod’s Quaker owners, he is startled to see the ship has been covered with whale’s teeth and bones. Ishmael soon hears stories of the ship’s commander, the mysterious Captain Ahab. Ahab is still recovering from losing his leg in a whale attack on his last voyage. When first sighted by Ishmael, Ahab is walking unsurely on a false leg crafted from a sperm whale’s jaw.
A key theme of the novel is the irrational lust for vengeance embodied by Captain Ahab. He soon makes it clear that his sole purpose on the voyage is to kill the whale that took his leg – a famous giant white whale called Moby Dick. Ahab’s sanity comes into question as his actions become increasingly erratic. It emerges he has smuggled on a private harpoon crew, who he believes are the only people capable of slaying the whale. As the voyage enters the Indian Ocean and encounters various difficulties, Ahab becomes more and more irrational.
The Pequod eventually finds Moby Dick and launches into a costly three day running battle with the whale. On the third day, Ahab is killed by the whale before it rams and sinks the Pequod. The entire crew is killed apart from Ishmael, who survives by clinging to a coffin. He is eventually discovered by the crew of the Rachel, a ship the Pequod had encountered earlier, but refused to help in its search for survivors from another whale attack.
Literary Critics still passionately debate the true message of this enigmatic book. One thing that is certain is that it provides a fascinating insight into the whaling industry of the 1800s, something Melville himself gained first hand experience of in the 1840s. In the nineteenth century whale oil was an extremely lucrative commodity that was incredibly dangerous to obtain. Scores of American whaling ships set sail from Nantucket every year to hunt and process the whales whose oil was powering the industrial revolution. Working on these ships was deeply unpleasant, but a way to make money fast.
Indeed, one immediate inspiration for the story of Moby Dick seems to be the fate of the crew of the ‘Essex’. The whaling ship was sunk by a large sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1819. All but eight members of the crew perished, and the survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism to avoid starving to death.
Melville himself died in 1891. He had published several other novels, and his short stories were generally well acclaimed, but Moby Dick was still considered a flop. It wouldn’t be until the twentieth century that his most famous work would be revaluated, and critics would start to truly appreciate the complex and often hard to define themes of the novel. For modern readers it remains a fascinating read, providing a complex analysis of the human condition, and a graphic description of the lives of whalers in the nineteenth century.
Or, the Whale
Vol. 1 of 2Vol. 1 of 2
by Herman Melville