I came to reading Moby Dick with certain expectations.
All the references I had heard about it make it seem like the tale of Captain Ahab, a man so obsessed with taking revenge on Moby Dick the white whale, that it leads to his own destruction.
This was definitely part of Moby Dick. But only a teeny tiny part.
Most of the book is actually about Herman Melville’s great love of the whaling industry. And it was a very deep devotion, if Moby Dick is anything to go by.
Melville had been a whaler and it seems that Ishmael, the narrator of the book, basically functions as Melville. Over the course of the book he describes a huge number of the practises of whaling in the 1800s, with distinctions made between American whaling and other countries’ practises. He also gives an account of how much was known of whales at the time, which is extremely interesting – for instance, he knew that people had claimed that blue whales existed, but he had not. He also argued against scientists that had decided the whale was a mammal because if you look at it, you can see that it’s a fish. Makes sense to me (but then, I am one for the humanities).
He also talks about the history of the whaling industry and whales, and this is where his assertions get really bizarre. This history goes back to biblical and Roman times, so obviously he talks about Jonah and Pliny the elder. So far so good. Then he claims that when Perseus saved Andromeda, it was from a whale. That could work, as I recall she was chained to a rock in the sea (the monster could have been a killer whale, maybe?). But then he extrapolates from this, and goes on to say that the dragon St George slew was probably a whale. Which had crawled out from the ocean. And St George rode to conquer it on a seal. Yeah… that sounds even less likely to me than an actual dragon, somehow.
Aside from some oddities, however, it is a very good and extremely informative read. If you ever want to know about the whaling industry in the late 1800s, this is your book. It is very long, though, so maybe take it on holiday if you want history and science rather than an easy read.
A final tip – don’t read too much of it if you’re feeling tired. I did, and ended up giggling hysterically.
It’s about a sperm whale. And its name is Moby Dick.