Occasionally gruelling, but deeply rewarding. | Moby-Dick, Second Edition (Norton Critical Editions) | Herman Melville
Moby-Dick, Second Edition (Norton Critical Editions)
W. W. Norton & Company
, 2001 - 768 pages
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Great Kindle Edition
It was interesting to read the number of reviews on Melville's work, credentials unknown, as a piece of literature. There is no question or debate about whether this book is one of the great classics of American literature, or literature in general, of all time. There just isn't. So the 1-star or 2-star, or even 5-star reviews of the book as literature are not actually pertinent. It's like a debate about whether the Hope diamond is a really big jewel, or Handel's Messiah is an important piece of music. You may or may not like or appreciate Melville's work as a reader, but the only way to really find out is to read it. As far as this
for the Kindle, it has a working table of contents and very readable formatting, and I recommend it as an addition to your classic Kindle library.
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Finally. I finished reading this book last night. It's not so daunting a task if one reads only several chapters a day, for no more than an hour at a time. The voice the author chooses to use throughout is quite different from anything else I've encountered. It's not Shakespearean; it's Melvillian. The story is majestic, sonorous, tragic, and well worth your time to read. You will not be disappointed. But do read it from a BOOK, not some electronic gadget or audio recording. The
I read was the volume in the "Great Books of the Western World", published by Britannica.
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Occasionally gruelling, but deeply rewarding.
I somehow managed to get through seven years of English higher education without once picking this book up. I wasn't deliberately avoiding it either, it just never came up. (Of course, I do have a bit of a prejudice against American literature, so that might have been part of the reason.) In any case, I'm kind of glad, because it allowed me to discover this book on my own.
My first impression of this book was that, to my immense surprise, the first chapter is very funny. I admit, it's not clutching-my-chest, oh-God-I-can't-breathe funny. It's definitely not the moronic Family Guy/Will Farrell style of funny so many people are enamored of these days. But there is a powerful wry wit in Ishmael's voice, and although it's not the main focus of the book, it never entirely disappears.
Before you start to doubt my honesty (or sanity) I will confirm most of the dreadful things you have heard about this book. There are entire chapters devoted to obscure aspects of nineteenth century whaling. Depending on your frame of mind, these can be mildly interesting or crushingly dull and obstructing the main story. The narrator occasionally wanders off on some theological/philosophical ramble which, again, can sometimes grow annoying.
Despite all of this, I deem this book eminently worth reading. Yes, it is probably the definitive novel of man vs. nature; and yes, it shows the defiance and resilience of the American spirit; and yes, it's a powerful picture of the venomous strength of hubris. But frankly, forget all that, what captured my attention, and what I hope will interest you, is the characters.
Melville births an amazing variety of characters in this novel, each of whom lives, breathes and struts across the stage of these pages. Stubb, the
mate, drolly jokes even while shouting orders to a boat crew chasing and stabbing a beast two hundred times their size. Fedallah, the Indian harpooneer of the captain's, gives grimly encouraging prophecies, something like the witches of Macbeth.
Even the minor characters gleam with life: the ship's cook scolding the sharks shredding the whale chained to the boat, the carpenter complaining as the peg he crafted for Ahab snaps, the ship-keeper Pip, whose sanity snaps when he's left alone adrift for hours in the endless sea.
And of course there's Ahab himself, maniacally pursuing this one creature literally around the entire globe in vengeance for the injuries done him. He is both grand, and, at heart, utterly mad. He shows the best of human resilience and industry and the worst of human hatred and obsession. He hides away in his cabin for much of the story, but when he is present, he utterly dominates the story through sheer force of personality.
If you were forced to read this for class, I hope that did not ruin the book for you. If you haven't read it yet, go pick it up now. Yes, there are parts which are plodding drudgery, but the rest of the book more than redeems them.
Go whale hunting today.
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Brilliant but Flawed
may be American literature's most famous work; only The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn even rivals it. It is the kind of book with such a reputation that it is impossible to read without a host of preconceived ideas. One need not even care about it, much less have read it, to know the outline and perhaps much more. Many judge it before reading, if they ever read it, based on what they know - or think they know. This inevitably carries over to reading, often making a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though perhaps inevitable, this is unfortunate, as it prevents nearly everyone from reading
ly and seeing it on its own terms; since it has been called a masterpiece so long, most feel compelled - perhaps even subconsciously - to agree, regardless of what they really think. Its near-unquestioned status is in large part a corrective reaction to the contempt in which it was held for the first seventy or so years, but the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
is good, arguably even great, but does not belong with literature's best works. As nearly always with extremes, the truth resides between its superlative current and former wretched state, and it is easy to see how both arose. Another reviewer notes that the consensus about Herman Melville is that he was a flawed genius, and so it is with this. If anyone ever needed an editor, it was Melville. Moby has moments of true greatness comparable to literature's greatest heights and at least as many moments that are superfluous and borderline plodding. The book has the potential to be truly great and perhaps would have been if trimmed somewhat. Melville seems to have known this as much as anyone but, like some of the truly sublime writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, his genius is simply unimaginable without rough edges. We must take him as he comes, for better or worse. Lack of perfection may bother some, especially those who see what could have been, but most seem willing to take Melville with proverbial warts and all. Everyone should of course read Moby - and practically everyone does who reads literature at all -, but the day when both its strengths and faults are admitted is still not even foreseeable.
Moby does many things well. On the simplest level, it is a rollicking sea adventure of the sort that made Melville's name. Anyone who likes the picaresque sea tales in which the nineteenth century was so rich can easily appreciate this. It also has much historical interest. The first part in particular is steeped in contemporary New England life, giving a good idea of how those in the region lived and thought in the early to mid nineteenth century. The rest of course does the same for sailors and particularly whalers; we learn an astonishing amount about ship life's pros and cons. It was very different from shore life and almost literally a self-contained world. This way of life is now gone - was indeed gone to a large extent even at publication due to steam power's rise -, making the historical and cultural value all the greater. Melville also goes to considerable lengths to ensure that we learn much about whales - but more on that later.
The book is also important, interesting, and influential on more technical levels. The first person narrative, complete sailing jargon and some distinctly American touches, is an important milestone in the development of a truly American voice. Ishmael's narration is distinct and unusual, a curious mix of erudition and vernacular - often imitated but never equaled. Moby was not popular enough to have the kind of influence that writers like Mark Twain soon had, but it has since become an American classic, influencing untold numbers of American writers and becoming an important part of the country's world canon.
Perhaps more notably, Moby can be legitimately seen as both an exemplary realist novel of the kind made famous and immortal in the nineteenth century and as an ambiguous, highly symbolic work that in many ways anticipates Modernism. The former is achieved via narration and a generally documentary-esque style. Much of Moby reads almost like a diary, a near-exhaustively personal account of a whaling exp
and the events leading up to it. We get not only the high points but also detailed descriptions of mundane things like eating and sleeping. The book has a grand, epic sweep and does a very convincing job of vividly and memorably portraying a world unknown to many at the time and to all now. It is almost as if we lived it ourselves, always the mark of great realism. Melville wrote in part because he thought whaling's wonder and excitement of had never been adequately conveyed, and he succeeded so well that further attempts were unnecessary.
But the book would be little more than a historical curiosity without the other aspect. Moby is one of those works that nearly everyone agrees is profoundly meaningful though few agree on the meaning. Melville was an inveterate allegory lover, and most of his works are clearly allegorical even if the allegory is not always clear. Moby on the surface seems a great exception, but we must not be fooled. Melville was not just writing an adventure story or a historical romance; Moby is indeed one of the most densely symbolic pre-twentieth century works. The most obvious allusive layer is Biblical. Many characters have Biblical names, and there are several story parallels - some well known, others more obscure. Names often give a clue to the characters and are important in foreshadowing, while parallels serve various functions. The Jonah parallel is the most explicit, even forming a sermon text; one may think Melville pushes this too far, but the point is well made. Many annotated
are available for those who may miss the references. The most detailed versions will be too much for the average reader, but getting one that at least has basic footnotes is essential in order not to miss what Melville is trying to say.
This raises the inevitable question - just what IS he trying to say? I recommend getting an edition that has only brief, explanatory footnotes restricted to facts unless one wants an exhaustive critical edition, because critical approaches are so many and various that it is easy to be overwhelmed - and, more importantly, all should decide for themselves. In my view, Moby-Dick, especially the title whale itself, darkly symbolizes the vast percentage of existence that is not only unknown to mankind but beyond its control. Though not misanthropic, the novel has little faith in amelioration, and the ending shows a very grim view of our ability to make any kind of meaningful change. All human endeavors to conquer the unknown and truly become the masters that we have long thought ourselves seem doomed. Some see the whale as a symbol of evil, but I feel this misses the point. It is not that evil triumphs over good; it is that the vast unknown forces that are immensely more powerful than us - whether we call them luck, fate, chance, or whatever - are forever beyond our reach. I think it is best to think of them as simply neutral or indifferent. We continually strive and alter; they are eternal and unchanging, which is why we cannot gain on them. As all this suggests, there is a large fatalistic streak. This runs counter to the existentialist element dominating later literature and thought, but Melville makes a powerful and dramatic case for a concept that held much sway with nineteenth century writers and thinkers. We should keep it in focus even if we can do little or nothing about it in any case.
The biggest reason for Moby's continuing popularity, though, is probably its unforgettable characters. Characterization is not one of Melville's top strengths, but these creations are so picturesque and finely drawn that few can forget them, and many have become archetypes. They are interesting enough to carry almost any book. This is all the more remarkable in that none are really sympathetic, especially in conventional terms; we essentially get a cast of eccentrics who fascinate almost against our will. Ishmael is a memorable narrator but perhaps the least interesting major character. His friend and partner Queequeg is certainly unforgettable, one of American literature's most distinct and evocative characters. One can easily find elements of racism and ethnocentrism in his depiction and he is an important early entry in the dubious American tradition of ethnic sidekicks, but the truly notable thing is the essential sympathy with which he is drawn. He is the most likable character, the most talented and able, and probably the closest to sympathetic. Despite attributes - including cannibalism - that the Western world finds shockingly primitive, his many admirable qualities are on full display, and his multiple advantages over condescending and supposedly far more enlightened Westerners are undeniable. He has the genuine sincerity and selflessness virtually non-existent in the West, and his true friendship with Ishmael is a striking instance of hybridity so rare in an era where American slavery still existed. It is startling to realize just how cosmopolitan ships were in contrast to the lands that sent them, especially considering the remarkable harmony and coalescence. Ishmael at times has a near-sociological view of Queequeg, and though he is not meant as a depiction of any single race or culture, the frequent contrasts between him and all he stands for on the one hand and Western culture on the other are engrossing and often insightful. The discerning will see some of Melville's darkest commentary here as well as some subtle satire.
There are many other memorable characters, not least first and
mates Starbuck and Stubb, who show contrary poles of human nature and thought while their antagonism provides some comic relief. Even many minor characters, particularly the preacher and Elijah, are quite vivid and memorable. However, the most legendary and unforgettable is surely Captain Ahab. One of literature's most famous characters, he has been often and variously portrayed and frequently imitated, but the original drawing is still the best. It is curious that he is commonly depicted as thoroughly comic, aloof to the point of absurdity and a target for mocking laughter, because the original is darkly tragic. A brooding, foreboding figure, he is both larger than life and hardly of it - a highly eccentric man driven to obsessive frenzy and ultimate doom by a force he can neither control nor understand but is unable to resist. Ahab is a stunning instance of just how low human nature can sink - literally and figuratively. A warning to all, he shows the folly of letting hubris and ambition overcome the truly meaningful; there comes a point when we must let the unknown remain unknown, lest we end up like him.
Then there is Moby-Dick himself. He is mentioned many times over the course of the book, and looms over the whole like a vast but unseen presence, but is only visible very briefly and remains mysterious. This has not stopped him from becoming world famous - indeed, has only added to his mystique. He is deliberately vague, which not only drives Melville's symbolic purpose but also, like the unseen aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey, makes him more powerful and all-encompassing than he could ever have been otherwise. Melville sketches the outline, and imagination fills in the rest; this works perfectly, as we make him stand for our own fears and repressions. The novel thus successfully accomplishes one of art's rarest and most notable achievements - striking at human nature's dark heart by indirection. Moby-Dick may mean many things to many people, but his dreadfully imposing presence continues to haunt the collective psyche. Here, at least, Melville's artistry could not be bettered.
All this is more than enough reason to read the book. It has plenty of conventional qualities to attract and keep a wide variety of readers, encompassing everything from pathos to humor: tragedy, adventure, suspense, history, philosophy, political commentary, and more. Some may be scared off by its fearsome reputation as a long and difficult read, but like much else about the book, this is greatly exaggerated. It is about four hundred and fifty pages long - practically miniscule by nineteenth century standards -, and chapters are very short, which keeps the pace fairly fast and makes for reading ease. The large number of sailing/whaling terms, as well as some regionalisms, can make the reading hard going, as can Melville's style generally. He was an autodidact and self-taught writer, and it shows; his prose is very unusual, full of rare words, unusual phrasing, and occasional rough-and-ready grammar. He was not an easy read even then, and dramatic style changes over the ensuing century and a half have only made him harder. However, as in nearly all such cases, this gets easier as one goes along, becoming almost second nature by the time one is well into the book - especially with footnotes. Those who have read Melville before will also have an easier time, as the prose is more straight-forward than in most of his major works.
Yet Moby is far from perfect; indeed, it has faults numerous and significant enough to kill a lesser work. The main problem is sheer inclusiveness; Melville could easily have cut one hundred pages, or even half the total, without losing any actual story and very little else. There are many points where he seems to forget he is writing a novel and goes on long tangents about various whaling aspects. Virtually no dramatization is attempted here; it is almost like reading a textbook. Melville mercifully spreads this throughout rather than throwing all out at once, but it still becomes tedious and sometimes interrupts narrative flow, which is particularly annoying to many. Some devotees treasure these sections, and they are integral in a certain sense - Moby would certainly be a very different book without them -, but most readers will be highly turned off. Many will skip them, which will cost them little, but quite a few may give up altogether. This last is a true shame, not only because they will miss many positive qualities, but also because these sections do have a certain purpose, however overblown. They contribute significantly to the documentary feel and thus to the realism, substantially helping achieve Melville's goal of bringing whaling's ins and outs to the masses. We must also remember that scholarship is one of the book's themes, and the depth and breadth of knowledge is indeed impressive, especially considering that Melville had very little formal education. One can learn quite a bit in addition to the fictional aspects, giving unusual value and appeal. That said, nearly all will agree that some discursions are just too detailed and minutia-focused; only those who truly love the subject could really care for them. We can thankfully never accuse Melville of being didactic, a fatal flaw for most artists, but he can be pedantic. He simply did not know when to stop. Perhaps more importantly, the vast knowledge increase has made much of this outdated and/or inaccurate; some was indeed inaccurate even then. Most glaring are constant references to whales as fish; Ishmael mentions in passing the then relatively new idea that they were mammals and laughs! The fact that some will go away from the book thinking false things severely undercuts its value here, underscoring inclusiveness problems. There are many abridged versions, but it is probably best to read Moby as intended, for better or worse, and decide the merits for ourselves.
There are some problems that editing could not fix, namely the abrupt jerk and overly marked contrast between the pre-ship section - about twenty chapters, eighty pages - and the rest. A good example is how Ishmael, despite being narrator and participant, fades into obscurity. The first section is all about him: his thoughts, views, actions, etc.; everything is shown through his eyes. However, as far as I can recall, no one even talks to him on the ship. He has very little interaction with the crew and relates many events, including lengthy full conversations and apparent monologues, without any explanation of how he has the information. Narration also switches to different voices on occasion; this does not come off as deliberate, like the Modernist narrative experiments that it pioneered, so much as if Melville forgot his plan. He seemed to write one book and begin another, tacking the latter on when the former should have been rewritten; the transition is messy and the whole ill-fitting. Most scholars think he drastically changed his plan, and it certainly seems so. The first part gives no idea what to expect from the rest. It is almost a comedy of manners, near-Dickensian at times, with some sharp social observation and more than a little humor. This is a stark contrast not only to the rest but to nearly everything else Melville wrote - interesting enough in itself in this but hardly inherently great. Even taken on its own terms, it is hardly his best writing; there is little art and none of the remainder's grand sweep and tragic overtones. It is unfortunate that he did not drastically rewrite or even drop this, as it is a significant stylistic limitation. Coupled with the many non-narrative tangents, it pushes Moby too far from the technical and stylistic elegance necessary to truly great literature in most eyes.
Still other plot problems exist, though perhaps less important and arguably subjective. First, aside from the possibly excessive detail and focus on trifles, the initial section simply goes nowhere fast. One keeps wondering when the actual story will start, as popular depictions almost never use this section, and some will probably give up before the ship is even boarded. The section does have some value in adding to the realism and giving some now interesting historical background, but the fact that the rest is practically a separate novel truly makes it seem useless.
Discursions aside, the book will pick up for most people once onboard, but even here the essentially episodic plot will bother some. The biggest surprise for most will almost certainly be that Moby-Dick does not appear until the last ten or so pages. Popular depictions often give the impression that the book is a series of Moby-Dick chases, but those who actually read it may well wonder if it will ever occur. It does, and Melville plays it up quite a bit, offering possibly more action in the last few pages than the whole book previously. Even so, it is hard not to see the long delay as anti-climactic; some may even be so let down that it significantly lowers their view of the whole, perhaps even ruining it for a few. It is indeed curious that Melville has the whale mentioned so many times but keeps delaying the inevitable. This was presumably mainly for suspense, and it indeed does much in that way, but whether it is worth the wait is highly questionable. Symbolically, of course, it works very well - is indeed inevitable if Melville's tragic vision is to be fulfilled, but this will do little to satisfy those let down by the narrative anticlimax.
A final problem is the short closing chapter, which is necessary in order to show how Ishmael is able to tell the story but very perfunctory in execution. This is so much so that Melville may have been better off omitting it. The British first edition did just this by mistake, and this is the version read by D. H. Lawrence, who first brought Moby into vogue. Narrative implausibility was after all present in many prior instances, and a final one could hardly be fatal. Besides, one might add, if it did not bother Lawrence, who thought Moby a first-rate masterwork, why should it bother us? Either way, this is the kind of imperfection that will greatly irk some but that should not keep us from reading and appreciating what is a very good work in many respects.
All told, Moby is simply one of those classics that everyone should read; it may run quite contrary to some tastes, and those looking for a true masterwork will surely be disappointed, but there is more than enough to make it worthwhile.
As for this edition, it is ideal for most because it is not only inexpensive but has both versions of the story; an excellent introduction with substantial background on Melville, the novel, and the historical context plus some initial analysis; and useful notes. Some will want more supplemental material, but this is perfect for nearly everyone else.
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For this Sesquicentennial
, the Northwestern-Newberry text of
has been generously footnoted to include dozens of biographical discoveries, mainly from Hershel Parker's work on his two-volume biography of Melville. A section of "Whaling and Whalecraft" features prose and graphics by John B. Putnam, a sample of contemporary whaling engravings, as well as, new to this edition, an engraving of Tupai Cupa, the real-life inspiration for the character of Queequeg. Evoking Melville's fascination with the fluidity of categories like savagery and civilization, the image of Tupai Cupa fittingly introduces "Before
: International Controversy over Melville," a new section that documents the ferocity of religions, political, and sexual hostility toward Melville in reaction to his early books, beginning with Typee in 1846. The image of Tupai Cupa also evokes Melville's interest in the mystery of self-identity and the possibility of knowing another person's "queenly personality" (Chapter 119). That theme (focused on Melville, Ishmael, and Ahab) is pursued in "A Handful of Critical Challenges," from Walter E. Bezanson's classic centennial study through Harrison Hayford's meditation on "Loomings" and recent essays by Camille Paglia and John Wenke. In "Reviews and Letters by Melville," a letter has been redated and a wealth of new biographical material has been added to the footnotes, notably to Melville's "Hawthorne and His Mosses." "Analogues and Sources" retains classic pieces by J. N. Reynolds and Owen Chase, as well as new findings by Geoffrey Sanborn and Steven Olsen-Smith. "Reviews of Moby-Dick" emphasizes the ongoing religious hostility toward Melville and highlights new discoveries, such as the first-known Scottish review of The Whale. "Posthumous Praise and the Melville Revival: 1893-1927" collects belated, enthusiastic praise up through that of William Faulkner. "Biographical Cross-Light" is Hershel Parker's somber look at what writing Moby-Dick cost Melville and his family. From Foreword through Selected Bibliography, this Sesquicentennial Norton Critical Edition is uniquely valuable as the most up-to-date and comprehensive documentary source for study of Moby-Dick.
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