I have recently read a book that has often been avoided because of how heavy it is, and because of that, people stray away from it. I must admit that the use of a dictionary to read this was mandatory and very rare for me to do because Herman Melville’s vocabulary or diction was just so rich. Do you know which classic I’m talking about now? Yes, Moby Dick. With one of the most well-known and staggering first lines in literature “Call me Ishmael”, it definitely has gone to my heart. The story is about Ishmael who one day decided that he was going to learn the art of whaling, went with his cuddle buddy Queequeq on Captain Ahab’s Pequod ship. Ahab’s mission? To avenge the white whale that took one of his legs.
Right from the very start, I was captivated and amused by Ishmael’s easygoing demeanor and the way he always had a positive outlook on whatever was happening or had happened; bad or good. His unconventional introduction in the novel, forced for economic reasons to share a room at an inn with a complete stranger, described by Melville in a manner that takes for granted the normality of the situation, was lovely. Ishmael thought and acted in ways that made me think “Why do I always fuss so much about the little things, why can’t I just sometimes let things be and enjoy these little imperfections in life and find some good out of them?”. His roommate Queequeg is a man from the fictional island in the South Sea called Kokovoko, big, armed with muscles and tattoos strongly glazed all over his body. Now Ishmael was absolutely struck with curiosity and bewilderment by him but eventually, Ishmael felt nothing but respect and admiration for his new friend, because of his sincerity and lack of Christian “hallowed courtesies”. That was one of my favorite parts of the book where Ishmael thought “you cannot hide the soul” even though he basically thought of Queequeg as a savage or “George Washington cannibalistically developed”. So, their relationship in the first few chapters really drove me into the story.
As much as I loved Ishmael, I slowly realized that Captain Ahab was indeed the central focus of the story. While Ishmael was laid back and is bestowed with acceptance with all the obstacles that come in life,
“However they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way”
Ahab was the total opposite and even wouldn’t let the Man above destroy everything for him.
“Talk not to me of blasphemy man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”.
He is not what we would call a villain in the story, but he was larger than life, so focused to the point of madness, single-mindedly bent on tracking and killing the white whale, Moby Dick. He is basically the personification of the destructive manner of obsession. Therefore in a way, his character definitely reminds us of the heroes from Shakespearean or Greek tragedies – suffering from one single fatal flaw that puts him in line with other legendary characters like Oedipus. Utter pride. That overconfidence even leads to the mindset that God was the only one responsible for the tragedies in this world (greed, hate, deceit, war, crime, poverty, all that jazz) and that he could defy the Almighty himself. To put it into extremes, Ahab believes that he like God, could enact his will and be indestructible to the forces of nature. Excuse my language because it’s possibly the only way I could describe Ahab; he doesn’t and will not take sh*t from anybody. In the game of life, Ahab doesn’t want to just play the hand he was dealt, no, he wants to spit in the face of the dealer because nobody can just impose rules on Ahab without a fight. So be it the sun, God or eternity itself, Ahab will step up to the curb. Even if it kills him. Moby Dick was to Ahab the embodiment of all the evil in this world and will do anything to avenge what it did to him. This fatal flaw of Ahab’s however is not something that’s innate, he wasn’t born with it and I started to sympathize because it was all due to life in a harsh world and he is much of a victim as an aggressor as the result in this whole mission is not a victorious one.
Now the whale is sometimes seen by Ahab as God and at times, it’s seen as an empty, Godless universe;
“To Ishmael, the whale’s indefinite whiteness’ shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation. (it’s) a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink” – 238
Because since white is both the lack of color and the combination of all colors, Moby is a symbol that no matter how you will fight it, the sum total of everything in the universe is yes, just a big fat nothing. This definitely does scare me a little bit because it’s a nasty reminder that if you live life trying to find meaning (like how Ahab is trying to), we better best be prepared for a lot of pain and misery. But if we have the guts to face the universe’s emptiness, you see we’re all just like Ishmael; floating aimlessly in a sea that keeps flowing without a care. But I do suggest that we all keep on floating because the sun always rises the next day and there life is worth living amidst all the darkness and pain.
So, all in all, Moby Dick has unexpectedly made it to the shelf of books that I fell in love with and Ishmael is way up there with Tom from The Great Gatsby as one of my most-loved narrators in literature. Honestly, when my father told me how he loved this book, I was a skeptic for a long time and strayed away from Moby Dick for quite a while. It seemed to be just like James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I definitely should read), big, heavy, just too much. Now, I take all of it back and it’s definitely a story that I will pass on to my children some day.