Digested Readings: Moby Dick


Moby Dick is the most famous work by American novelist Herman Melville. It is a classic of nineteenth century literature, a compendium of scientific knowledge, and, printed as it often is in the form of a book, it could also successfully function as a gun emplacement or as a chock while you change a tyre.

What I mean is that, as far as novels go, it is what we professionals call “a long one”, and so it’s essential we get on with analysing it straight away in case bad light stops play fourteen minutes before stumps.

The story, which is quite simple, is as follows. Captain Ahab, a man of the sea, is possessed by the idea of exacting revenge on his mortal enemy, Moby Dick. Now, Moby Dick is dark, handsome, mysterious, and, would you believe it, a sperm whale. The reason that Mr Ahab and Mr Dick have become enemies is that previously the whale tore off Mr Ahab’s leg, a sexual move which even back in the nineteenth century was considered treacherous, or at least impolitic.

Captain Ahab assembles a crack team of whale hunters to help him in his revenge mission, including our friend Ishmael, a harpooner called Quequeeg (who I’m certain sleeps with Ishmael in the second chapter), Starbuck, Flask, Stubb, and sundry others.

Just after they set sail, there’s a great big meeting at which Captain Ahab enlists the support of his crew for the brutal murder of Mr Dick. Everyone is thoroughly enthused, except for Starbuck, who is more interested in expanding his vast coffee shop empire and has no time for quarrels.

To cut a dreary story short, after a great deal of prancing about in boats, Captain Ahab shoots a harpoon at Moby Dick, gets tangled up in the rope, and Moby Dick drags him down into the ocean, where he either drowns or is eaten by mermaids – Melville doesn’t offer clarification on this point. Ishmael survives the shipwreck by clinging to a coffin, which is symbolic of something – existential despair, I guess, or the Common Agricultural Policy.

That, you see, is the trick with Moby Dick. Melville certainly does imply that his novel is a simple story of a whale and the man who hunts him down, with some contextual information inserted here and there. (Melville appears to have learnt the art of whaling from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he has helpfully copied it all down for you.)

However, asserting this fact in literary circles will see you being uninvited to book club meetings faster than you can say, “Marieke Hardy is overrated, isn’t she?” You have to remember that everything in Moby Dick is a symbol of one kind or another. Ishmael symbolises Solitude and Self-Reliance, Quequeeg represents Charity and Hospitality, and Moby Dick, in a complex literary manoeuvre that saw its author being nominated for a Daytime Emmy, symbolises both the Dewey Decimal System and Lutherans.

Now if, after all that, you feel you can’t commit yourself to the novel itself, then I urge you to at least consider going to the upcoming stage adaptation, Moby!. The great Shakespearian actor Sir Ian McKellen has been cast in the role of Ahab, while Moby Dick will be played by Joe Hockey and Gina Rinehart lashed together with some heavy nautical rope.

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