I read Moby Dick as a kind of inevitability, having been haunted by not
reading it for decades, or at least since I took a class on Melville in college in which the professor decided, inexplicably, to skip Melville’s masterpiece.
The book was not what I expected. First, it was funny. The early chapters with Ishmael and Queequeg were really comic. There’s humor in the later chapters, too, such as when the Pequod meets the Rose-Bud. Aside from humor, much of it was plain entertaining.
Second, for a 19th century novel, I found a lot of Melville’s devices very modern. Much of the narration doesn’t seem to be Ishmael’s but Melville’s, giving it a feel of meta-fiction (although I understand it IS Ishmael (disguising Melville)). I also found the short chapters had a modern feel. Melville gives himself a lot of freedom – one chapter takes place in the form of play, for example. That was a refreshing surprise. The chapter that launches into a long, deep digression on the meaning the whiteness was also amazing and seems to me unusual for the time. I also enjoyed, to an extent, the chapters on whaling, especially chapter 32 in which whales are categorized – folio, octavo and duodecimo. Let's call it a "list chapter," because it is.
Other parts were clogged and sluggish. A friend of mine claimed the word “slog” was coined to describe reading Moby Dick. A huge chunk of the book has only tangentially to do with the story, and is instead related to rope, and sperm oil, and what whales’ foreheads look like. But Melville is obviously compelled to show the reader every nook and corner of the ship. He is the ship's captain, and an authority.
The story itself is bracing, and I found the prose made the effort more than worthwhile. You might call it poetic, but I prefer rhapsodic - mostly it is just rich, twisting prose very fond of its subject. Melville is obviously a lover of Shakespeare, and there are echoes of Shakespeare in a lot of the dialogue. I liked that.
So what is it about? It’s often said that Moby Dick is an allegory but what is it an allegory of? Man vs. Nature? Evil vs. Good? Man and God? Class and society? Capitalism? Democracy? Homosexuality? The book appears to be about everything, including chance, if you consider Ishmael's escape. I think I would surely benefit from re-reading this but, unlike Ahab who couldn't leave well enough alone, I think I will get on with my life.