Thursday 14 December 2017

Cheat read: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Written 1851 in Pittsfield, USA - Nautical fiction

Moby Dick
Moby Dick

Hilary A White

The rundown: Ishmael recalls a rootless time in his life when he crewed aboard the whaling ship the Pequod under Captain Ahab. He travels to New Bedford where he befriends the Polynesian harpooneer Queequeg. The pair secure berths on the Pequod as it prepares to set sail from Nantucket, the world capital of the whaling industry in those times.

Ahab, it transpires, lost a leg during a previous attack by a mysterious white whale and hobbles about on a makeshift limb carved from a whale bone. The grim, austere man is hell-bent on revenge and has smuggled his own team of harpooneers aboard to ensure that the "monster" can be killed. Some crewmen bristle at this.

As they enter the Indian Ocean and have encounters with fellow whaling vessels, Ahab cares only for one item of information from them - sightings of the white whale known as Moby-Dick.

Need to know: In his highly recommended 2000 non-fiction title In the Heart of the Sea, Nathanial Philbrick tells of the fate of the Nantucket whaling ship the Essex, which during one of its endless expeditions was attacked and sunk by a huge bull sperm whale in 1820. The freak incident led to many grisly months adrift in the Pacific for the handful of survivors.

That story formed the real-life scaffolding for Herman Melville's epic of obsession and vengeance at sea. Moby-Dick failed to set the world alight on its arrival in 1851, partly due to early editions which left out a key epilogue and plot point and resulted in criticism being hurled its way. It also marked the decline of Melville the writer, who found his popularity in terminal decline in the years following its publication.

The End Eventually, Ahab spots the beast and a three-day chase ensues. Death and destruction befall the crew each time they are sent out in skiffs to harpoon the leviathan. The all-consuming nature of Ahab's mission eventually manifests in the sinking of the Pequod by the whale and Ahab's watery grave. A whirlpool caused by the ship going under also pulls in the remaining crew, with only Ishmael far enough away to resist its current. He survives by floating aboard a coffin intended for Queequeg and is rescued a day later by fellow whaling vessel the Rachel.

The verdict A flop in its time, Moby-Dick was reassessed in the 20th Century after it came back into print after a long absence. The reappraisal bestowed it classic status and a seat at the table of the Great American Novel.

Whaling is of course now seen for the barbaric practice that it is but do not let this deter you. Melville's man-vs-god dialectic is chock-full of enough incident and thematic richness to warrant further investigation.

Did you know? The Starbucks coffeehouse chain is named after Captain Ahab's diligent first mate aboard the Pequod. This was only after co-founder Gordon Bowker lost a battle to name the company after the ship itself. His associate, Terry Heckler, understandably complained at the time that the name "Pee-quod" mightn't be the best moniker for a company encouraging the drinking of coffee.

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