Moby Dick; or, the Whale is a modern epic. The novel was published in 1851. October in Britain, and then November in America. Ten years prior to this Herman Melville, the author, had begun four years of sailing on whaling vessels. The size, and subject scope, of the novel reflects the author’s own experiences at sea. It is hard to imagine the dedication and commitment which sailing and whaling demands. Melville’s, or ‘Ishmael’s‘, lengthy digressions and in-depth studies give the reader some idea of the all-encompassing nature of whaling though.
The novel goes further though. It has many allusions to other whaling works of literature, and is overtly inspired by Shakespeare and the Bible. More than anything it is a darkly humourous study of the humanity which Melville encountered throughout his life.
On finishing this epic of Cetology, I realised I wouldn’t quite know how to review it. It would be difficult to put my experience of reading it into words. And this experience wouldn’t necessarily equate to any one else’s experience.
I listened to this podcast episode:
As you listen, you can hear each of the speakers rushing through their notes in their vain attempts to contain and catalogue the ideas, the meanings and symbols from the novel. Each has their own idea of what makes the novel so great. My favourite part is right at the end where each of the participants are discussing together all of the things which they were not able to speak about within the forty-five minutes of the episode!
Instead of ‘reviewing’ then, here are some of my favourite quotes / short passages from the novel. Though it must be said it would take forever to include even a selection of the best quotes… These are the ones which I highlighted while reading! (And I did quite a lot of listening, so a lot of that won’t be included here).
Many Moby Dick Quotes…
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. […] it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.Chapter I – Loomings
… there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard theives entailed upon us.Chapter I – Loomings
I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.Chapter I – Loomings
Better sleep with a sober cannibal, than a drunken Christian.Chapter III – The Spouter Inn
Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ’em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth…Chapter XXIX – Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb
The French are the lads for painting action.Chapter LVI – Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!Chapter LVIII – Brit
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.Chapter LXV – The Whale as a Dish
Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.Chapter XCIV – A Squeeze of the Hand
Undoubtedly I could go on…
If you still need convincing read this article which gives some great reasons for the novel’s continued relevance and importance. @philipwhale wrote that article, and also curated the Moby Dick big read which is how I listened to some chapters of the book.
All of the quotes are taken from the Gutenberg file of the book here.