Herman Melville’s classic novel about the grand whaling voyage of the Pequod first landed on bookstore shelves exactly 167 years ago. Moby-Dick was widely panned in both England and the United States—Melville’s experimental style flew over the heads of most critics. But today the book is widely read, loved, and discussed.
1. It’s epic.
The story that drives Moby-Dick forward is Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the white whale. He wishes to kill the beast that long ago took his leg and, in doing so, stare into its soul. After the ship launches, the crew slowly surmises the mysterious nature of their voyage—no typical whaling venture, but a quest to conquer and understand the godlike whale.
He advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming: “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!” (Chapter 36).
2. It’s funny.
For all its grandeur and adventure, Moby-Dick is often side-splittingly funny. The narrator, Ishmael, has an eye for the quirks and oddities of human nature. At times, his shipmates seem more a troop of clowns than a crew of whalemen. If you’re looking for a chuckle, search no further.
Least of all, did Flask presume to help himself to butter. Whether he thought the owners of the ship denied it to him, on account of its clotting his clear, sunny complexion; or whether he deemed that, on so long a voyage in such marketless waters, butter was at a premium, and therefore was not for him, a subaltern; however it was, Flask, alas! was a butterless man! (Chapter 34).
3. It teaches you all about whales.
Melville was intensely fascinated by whales. In Moby-Dick, Melville devotes nearly as many pages to the behaviour, anatomy, and history of whales as he does to the story. Even though much of the science Melville cites is outdated, his keen attention and descriptive powers make Moby-Dick a continual source of inspiration to whale lovers.
The lower subdivided part, called the junk, is one immense honeycomb of oil, formed by the crossing and recrossing, into ten thousand infiltrated cells, of tough elastic white fibres throughout its whole extent. The upper part, known as the Case, may be regarded as the great Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale (Chapter 77).
4. Melville’s writing is electrifying.
Melville stands among the greatest prose writers in the English language. His keen eye, musical ear, and capacious mind make for a truly electrifying style. For lovers of language, Melville is the maestro—and Moby-Dick is his masterpiece.
Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice… (Chapter 102).
5. The characters are unforgettable.
After reading Moby-Dick, the rowdy crew of characters remains fixed in the mind: attentive Ishmael, steadfast Starbuck, stout Stubb, maniacal Ahab, courageous Queequeg. Melville’s characterizations are so detailed that each figure emerges from the page with a distinctive voice, gait, and attitude. And they are, for the most part, excellent company.
And [his] tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last (Chapter 110).
Moby-Dick is a novel of countless depths and dimensions. There are as many ways—and reasons—to read it as there are readers. We’ve rounded up a handful of our favorite reasons to climb aboard Melville’s masterwork for another voyage. Can you think of more?