Moby Dick – initial thoughts

Moby Dick. This was a slog. I had been reading it for one week and I was only on chapter 30, with 105 chapters still to go. I stayed up until 1:30 am one night to read another five chapters, rewarding myself with a game of Candy Crush Saga after I’d finished each one.

I noticed in the second week that I was avoiding reading anything. My muddled internal logic went along these lines, “If I read something else, I’m taking time away from reading Moby Dick. Moby Dick is the book I am supposed to be reading, but I am not enjoying Moby Dick. So I just won’t read anything.” This is stupid. I set myself this crazy challenge, but the only contract I have is with myself. I am not going to fail anything if I stop in the middle of a book that I really can’t stand.

So I am stopping for now, posting an interim report, and will be visiting the library to get four or five of the next books on my list. In contrast to Fred Vincy and Dorothea Casaubon, I am in no hurry to find out what happens to Captain Ahab, Queequeg or the narrator Ishmael. Maybe I’ll come back to Moby Dick sometime just to prove I can finish it. Don’t wait up.

I had no problems with the nineteenth century language, given that the week prior I had read all eight ‘books’ that comprise the novel Middlemarch. This time I simply did not enjoy the story. There were some interesting parts but two sticking points – racism and the main subject itself, whaling.


“Sperm oil bottle and can” by Raphael D. Mazor – Flickr ( Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Melville himself had been a whaler and he writes a defence of whaling in one of the early chapters. He essentially puts forward whaling as being both adventurous and necessary, given that it was essential for the production of whale oil. I can appreciate some of his points about whale oil (specifically that from the sperm whale) burning brightly and being very stable, but a very cursory search on the internet shows it was not actually as ubiquitous as he presents, and there were plenty of other options for lighting at the time he was writing. (My search also threw up discussions of the ‘whale oil myth’ which I am not going to go into here.) I think Melville exaggerates the utility and reach of sperm oil with the aim of making his pursuits seem more noble. I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s when “Save the Whale” became shorthand for any kind of environmental activism. I know that I am looking at the situation with the benefit of 150-odd years of scientific and environmental knowledge but I can’t get caught up with the excitement of chasing whales around the oceans in order to kill them. I probably would feel the same about any novel which describes game hunting in great detail.

no nukes save the whales

“no nukes save the whales” by – Flickr ( Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Racism is another huge problem. I can see that Melville was trying to be inclusive. His characters are racially diverse (especially for a novel of its time) and he goes out of his way to show that Ishmael, the main character, is initially scared by the harpooner Queequeg but then becomes close friends with him. Nevertheless, the way Melville describes Queequeg shows that he is merely describing a caricature “noble savage” (and he does actually use that term) and I wonder if the author had ever really got to know a person from the Pacific Islands, where Queequeg is meant to come from. Also anyone with the tiniest understanding of Islam would know that ‘The Ramadan’ he refers to in Chapter 17 is not anything like Ramadan as Muslims observe it.


“Queequeg” by I. W. Taber – Moby Dick – edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

I did some more searching on the internet and found this post about racism in books, by Justine Larbalestier, an author of Young Adult books. She is specifically responding to criticisms of one of her novels, and the whole blog post is worth reading. Early on she mentions how she could not stand Moby Dick although other people thought it was wonderful. I was relieved to read her opinion, because I truly was wondering why it came so high up in the Telegraph’s recommended 100 novels. (It would be too easy to blame this on the Telegraph being owned by a sexist, racist, climate-change denying white Australian, but I know that many of the journalists writing for Murdoch are far more well-educated, left-wing and politically correct than he is.)

This reviewer (identified only as ‘Eva’) really enjoyed Moby Dick but also commented on the racism. There are interesting comments below the blog post (more insightful and illuminating than the usual comments you find online). Yes, it may feel awkward as a white woman writing about issues of race but I agree with Eva that it is important to mention them and not try to ignore the elephant in the room.

I feel that Melville was probably trying to bring issues of race to his readers but ended up inadvertently confirming the racist attitude that he and his peers held. Also, he was not such a clever and skilful writer as, say, Mark Twain. Twain wrote in America in the same century but nevertheless managed to portray black people in a far more understanding and sympathetic light. I do acknowledge that Twain had a far worse attitude towards indigenous people, both in America and elsewhere. I also acknowledge that Twain’s books (particularly Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn) have led to discussions about whether he was racist or not, so the question is far from clear-cut. Nevertheless I feel far less comfortable reading Melville writing about black people than when I last read Mark Twain’s writing.

Finally, another internet rabbit trail re. Moby Dick and racism led me to to this blog post where the author equates Ahab’s revenge hunting of the white whale with and the way they bait internet scammers (the so-called 419 scams in particular). If you have some time on your hands you might find it an educational read, although certainly not enjoyable.

I don’t know what novel I will read next. I have read Anna Karenina, and the next book in the Telegraph’s list is The Portrait of A Lady, by Henry James, but I couldn’t find it in my local library and I’d rather have a hard copy than read it on my laptop. I’ll see what I find and write when I can.


About scimumsam

An ex scientist living in Australia, currently tutoring maths and science and homeschooling my own children. I blog about science and maths education on, and homeschooling (infrequently) on lookingslantwise.
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