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  • A mountain separating two lakes.

  • A room papered floor to ceiling with bridal satins.

  • The lid of an immense snuffbox.

  • These seemingly unrelated images take us on a tour of a sperm whale's head

  • in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

  • On the surface,

  • the book is the story of Captain Ahab's hunt for revenge against Moby Dick,

  • the white whale who bit off his leg.

  • But though the book features pirates, typhoons, high-speed chases,

  • and giant squid,

  • you shouldn't expect a conventional seafaring adventure.

  • Instead, it's a multilayered exploration of not only the intimate details

  • of life aboard a whaling ship,

  • but also subjects from across human and natural history,

  • by turns playful and tragic, humorous, and urgent.

  • The narrator guiding us through these explorations

  • is a common sailor called Ishmael.

  • Ishmael starts out telling his own story

  • as he prepares to escape thedamp and drizzly November in [his] soul

  • by going to sea.

  • But after he befriends the Pacific Islander Queequeg

  • and joins Ahab's crew aboard the Pequod,

  • Ishmael becomes more of an omniscient guide for the reader

  • than a traditional character.

  • While Ahab obsesses over revenge

  • and first mate Starbuck tries to reason with him,

  • Ishmael takes us on his own quest for meaning

  • throughoutthe whole universe, not excluding its suburbs.”

  • In his telling, life's biggest questions loom large, even in the smallest details.

  • Like his narrator, Melville was a restless and curious spirit,

  • who gained an unorthodox education working as a sailor

  • on a series of grueling voyages around the world in his youth.

  • He published "Moby Dick" in 1851,

  • when the United States' whaling industry was at its height.

  • Nantucket, where the Pequod sets sail,

  • was the epicenter of this lucrative and bloody global industry

  • which decimated the world's whale populations.

  • Unusually for his time,

  • Melville doesn't shy away from the ugly side of this industry,

  • even taking the whale's perspective at one point,

  • when he speculates on how terrifying the huge shadows of the ships must be

  • to the creature swimming below.

  • The author's first-hand familiarity with whaling is evident

  • over and over again in Ishmael's vivid descriptions.

  • In one chapter, the skin of a whale's penis

  • becomes protective clothing for a crewman.

  • Chapters with titles as unpromising asCistern and Buckets

  • become some of the novel's most rewarding

  • as Ishmael compares bailing out a sperm-whale's head to midwifery,

  • which leads to reflections on Plato.

  • Tangling whale-lines provoke witty reflections

  • on theever-present perilsentangling all mortals.

  • He draws on diverse branches of knowledge, like zoology, gastronomy, law, economics,

  • mythology, and teachings from a range of religious and cultural traditions.

  • The book experiments with writing style as much as subject matter.

  • In one monologue, Ahab challenges Moby Dick in Shakespearean style:

  • Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale;

  • to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee;

  • for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

  • One chapter is written as a playscript,

  • where members of the Pequod's multi-ethnic crew chime in individually and in chorus.

  • African and Spanish sailors trade insults while a Tahitian seaman longs for home,

  • Chinese and Portuguese crewmembers call for a dance,

  • and one young boy prophesies disaster.

  • In another chapter,

  • Ishmael sings the process of decanting whale oil in epic style,

  • as the ship pitches and rolls in the midnight sea

  • and the casks rumble like landslides.

  • A book so wide-ranging has something for everyone.

  • Readers have found religious and political allegory,

  • existential enquiry, social satire, economic analysis,

  • and representations of American imperialism,

  • industrial relations and racial conflict.

  • As Ishmael chases meaning and Ahab chases the white whale,

  • the book explores the opposing forces of optimism and uncertainty,

  • curiosity and fear that characterize human existence

  • no matter what it is we're chasing.

  • Through "Moby Dick's" many pages,

  • Melville invites his readers to leap into the unknown,

  • to join him on the hunt for theungraspable phantom of life.”

A mountain separating two lakes.

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B2 ishmael whale moby dick whaling chapter

Why should you read “Moby Dick”? - Sascha Morrell

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/10/23
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