GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…


Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)


The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *


So, is it a Great American Novel?


* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

85 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

  1. I was wondering what you were going to say about this one, FictionFan. Funnily enough, that’s a novel most of us on this side of the pond have had to read at one time or another. And I know very few people who enjoy it or call it ‘great.’ There are certainly plenty of novels that, in my opinion, better reflect the American experience in the context of a brilliant story.

    • Hahaha! You mean the YA instalove between sailor and cannibal? Simply couldn’t bring myself to talk about it – trying to erase the images from my poor little mind… 😉

  2. I have never read Moby Dick – and now I never will! What a let-down, although I was always a little dubious about how good a book on whale hunting could really be, unless one is particularly interested in whales. First-person narrative is tricky and it sounds like he has fallen into the trap of blurring the character’s voice with a third-person narrative, which is easily done. But rather unforgivable in a book so famous and highly regarded. Thanks for ploughing through this for us, FF, you’ve saved me a lot of time!

    • Don’t! Life is too short! I was laughing at the thought that they’re about to “make America great again” and praying that doesn’t mean they’re going to go back to writing books like this… 😉 But, you know, if you ever suddenly find yourself with a dead whale and can’t think what to do with it, just call me… I’ll be able to advise on how to turn it into lamp-oil (and whale-steaks)…

      • Luckily, the type of books preferred by the President elect either have cardboard pages or are filled with pictures of naked ladies, so hopefully no more of this nonsense!
        Dead whales don’t show up much in Cambridge, but you will definitely be the first person I call if I find one. If Terry dragged one in the back door I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, to be honest.

        • Haha! Indeed! Though I feel you’re making rather an assumption that he can actually read…

          Fortunately T&T don’t hunt – or at least don’t catch. But my previous pair were awful. I don’t know which was worse – the dead pigeon under the bed, the goldfish from next door’s pool or the half a budgie from who knows where. But they all pale into insignificance in comparison with the live rat they kindly released into my bedroom…

          • Oh no a RAT! I’ve had mice, voles, birds – in various states states of consciousness and sometimes in several bits – but never a rat. Although, a couple of months ago I got out the shower to find a fox in my hallway! Just wandered in the back door. No sign of the killer Terry then, I can tell you!

  3. Since I didn’t have the patience to read it, I got it on audio and listened in the car. There were some bits I loved, such as the description of the whale ‘nursery’ (who knows if accurate). On the whole, I think it’s very old-fashioned.

    • It took me ages to read – I kept putting it aside and going back to it. There were bits that were great – yes, I liked the whale nursery too – but they were too depply buried in all the tedious bits for my taste. I always compare these old books to Dickens, which is a high standard to meet, I admit – but at least he knew how to tell a tale and get some suspense going! Oh well, at least it’s off my TBR now… 😉

  4. Congrats on making it through!

    I just finished The North Water which takes place on a whaling ship in the far north. I was /this close/ to picking up Moby Dick next just for more maritime horror and adventure. So glad I didn’t! I picked up Conrad’s Heart of Darkness instead. So far, I’m not far enough in to say whether it’s better than Moby Dick, but at least it’s short!

    • Ha! Thank you! 😉

      Oh, I’ve seen The North Water around the place, usually with positive comments, and been quite tempted by it. Kinda wish I’d read it instead! I hope Heart of Darkness is better, since it’s on my Classics Club list… and if they all turn out ot be as tedious as Moby, I’m going to be most annoyed…!!

  5. Oh, dear, another GAN bites the dust. I wouldn’t have chosen it either and I look forward to your review of GIlead. I read Moby DIck in August 1992, and the thing I liked best about the book was the very short chapters–it made it quick to plow through and brush off on the good reading list. Courage! many good books ahead for you I’m sure. Enjoyed your review.

    • Ha! Yes, I’ve been on a bad run with the GAN recently – thank goodness for Gilead! I did like bits of Moby which was why I was able/willing to stick it out, and I’m thrilled it’s no longer on my TBR list, so that’s a plus – but I’m seriously hoping the next few will be better so my enthusiasm for the GAN Quest returns…

  6. I’ve often wondered if a writer was to submit this to an agent, let alone a publisher, would they be willing to take it on? I believe the answer would be a resounding NO! Meandering and indulgent would be written in the margins. Interesting what you said about Melville adopting a Shakespearian voice. I wonder his reasoning on this…surely a whaler from Nantucket wouldn’t speak in this manner. Can it really be his mimicry was an attempt at legitimacy? Oh, and your idea of greatness and America’s, well I hear you there. No red cap for you or me, you sly one! I was looking forward to this review and you didn’t disappoint…though I had no doubt you would. Brava!

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 Yep, I can’t imagine why it got published, especially after it had been turned down. There’s the occasional good bit, but it’s so not a novel, and the Shakespeare stuff set my teeth on edge. According to wiki it would appear he did want to be taken seriously as a great writer and thought the Shakespearian voice would help with that – but in my humble opinion part of greatness is creating a voice of one’s own. Haha! Did you notice that little sideways swipe then? I nearly added in brackets (and especially after November 8th) but decided I should restrain myself. After all, we voted for Brexit! 😉

  7. I’m PROBABLY going to read this one next year for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I WILL LIKELY FOCUS ON HOW FUN IT IS OUT ON THE HIGH SEAS. For I’m in that frame of mind. I’ve already read the whale anatomy parts. I feel that I’ve surmounted that whale. 😉

    • Hehe! Don’t let me put you off! Some (mad) people love it! 😉 If you’ve done the whale anatomy then the worst is indeed over, so brush up on your mock-Shakespearian and go for it! Some of the high seas stuff is quite fun…

  8. “I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track.” HA! This made me laugh out loud!

    I was supposed to read this in college. I got maybe 1/3 through it and did the best I could on my paper. Even then I intuited that life is too short! 🙂

    And I was forced to read Billy Budd in high school. UGH. That novella made me so angry! I still shudder when I see it on the library shelf.

    • Haha! I do get a bit brutal when an author makes me bitter… 😉

      Yeah, it tooks me weeks to read it – I kept putting it aside and then going back to it. But I was determined to finish it so I could get ot off my TBR for good! And frankly, even a third of it is too much…

      The odd thing is that I don’t remember anything about Billy Budd now, except that I thought it was dreadful and spent ages arguing with my tutor about my right to declare a book bad even if it was a classic – which he didn’t agree with at all! That’s why I prefer blogging to University… 😉

  9. Well, at least you got a great review out of it, and you can finally tick it off your “BigSister recommended this?!!” list. It’s just as well we’re all different, or far fewer books would be written.

    • Haha – thank you! Yes, I fear our crossover of books we both like is small! But I feel great about it being off my TBR once and for all – so win-win! I know – I love reading all the different reactions to a book. I’m convinced they must release different versions… 😉

  10. Well, I have to agree with your conclusions, FF. One hundred percent! This was a real chore to read, and I imagine it turned many a would-be English major aside. It’s just one example of books that managed to find publication back in the day, when today, they’d be heartily rejected. But on the bright side, you waded through it, found out it didn’t deserve its lofty reputation, and now can put it aside, never to touch it again!!

    • Yep, I wish they wouldn’t force people to read these books at such a young age – I’m sure it probably puts a lot of people off books, especially classics, for life! I can’t imagine why this was published without him being forced to tidy it up a bit and cut a lot of the tedious stuff. But it’s interesting that it pretty much bombed for decades and then later generations decided to dig it up and call it great – odd! Yes, I feel great that it’s finally off my TBR for ever!!

  11. I have been waiting and waiting got this review; you haven’t disappointed me! I love your comments on the dodgy Shakespeare, the seeming inability to end a scene well and the fact that Moby doesn’t even appear until 93% in! You did so well to finish this and that’s amazing despite the bits that were well-written! Onwards & upwards FF

    • Haha! Could you tell this wasn’t one of my favourite books then? And I thought I’d hidden it so well… 😉 Yeah, waiting for that whale to appear was a marathon – I got to the stage where I was worried he wouldn’t show up at all, and the last page would be Melville saying “April Fool!” The GAN Quest is turning into a roller-coaster…

    • I, too, have been eagerly waiting for this review, mainly because I was hoping you would vindicate my feelings on Melville; you did. Billy Budd was my first introduction to the author as well, and all I remember about the experience was how my lit professor in college was obsessed with all these penis allusions she swore were there. *sigh* Like I keep saying, get to the Great African American lit and you’ll be happier.

      • Haha! I honestly can’t remember what I objected to so much about it now, but it was the last of a long line of arguments I’d had with that particular tutor. But I’m so happy to finally have got Moby off my TBR it was almost worth reading it for that alone! I will, but I still have a pile of GAN books to get through – the Quest has been getting slower and slower this year…

  12. I also think that premise sounds pretty good. But I’ve heard enough people talk about how boring it is to ever decide to actually read it. It was fun reading your review, though! Have you ever read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick? That was a good Nantuckian story about whales!

  13. I am in awe that you read the whole thing!! I had to read it once for high school, but shamelessly skipped whole chunks of narrative. I keep feeling guilty about that (and attracted by that blurb you mentioned), but after reading your review, perhaps I should lay the guilt aside. 🙂

    • Haha – I’m pretty awed myself! Through that guilt overboard – you did the right thing! I decided I was going to read every word if it killed me, but honestly I don’t think I’d have missed anything by skipping most (if not all) of it… 😉 I’m going to try the movie though – hopefully it’ll have stuck to the actual plot a bit more than the book does…

  14. Congratulations on putting that monster to rest (the book not the whale). I read it some years back, and apart from the tedIum, I remember being annoyed by some of the inaccuracies of the biology, and stuck it out of sheer pigheadedness. My wife was supposed to read it for English 100 but I think she ducked the harpoon.
    I haven’t read much American lit but was impressed with Steinbeck and Irving, which are very different from each other and Melville (thankfully). Again, congrats!

    • Yes! The biology stuff drove me crazy too – not that I’m a whale expert, but it was his whole tone of superiority that everyone else had got it wrong and only he had got it right… when he hadn’t! And then the bit where he assures us that it wouldn’t be possible to hunt whales to extinction – grrr! But I’m glad I’ve finally read it and can tick it off the TBR forever…

      I read The Grapes of Wrath for the GAN Quest, and thought it was an incredibly powerful book even if I did think he got a bit too polemical at times. I’ll definitely read more Steinbeck though. So far, I haven’t tried Irving – do you have a recommendation?

      • I realised later that there is more than one Irving – I was thinking of Washington Irving not John. I read the Penguin edition The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other stories – one of the very few 5’s I have ever given on Goodreads. Nearly all are delightful although not all alike – the language and descriptions are wonderful – may have to read again over Christmas. 🙂 And Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

        • Ah, that one! I’ve only read Sleepy Hollow itself, rather than the whole collection, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and really must try some more of his stuff. It occurred to me afterwards, too, that I have indeed tried John Irving… and promptly abandoned him for being tediously and graphically obsessed with sex! So I’m glad you meant Washington… 😉

  15. Wow…that’s impressive. I take my hat off to you for finishing this. Wonderful review (as always). So, possibly (BIG Possibly) the movie route is the better one 😉 ?
    I have a great read for you if you need something…tee hee…I’m sure you know….the title has something to do with a dove that is lonely (he he he he). But we’ve had this conversation before…I’m just teasing you.

    • Thank you – it did takes several weeks of my life and most of my store of willpower… 😉 Haha – I don’t really see how the movie could be worse…

      Haha! Don’t worry – it’s on my list! Wouldn’t it be awful if I hated it though… 😉

      • No – definitely wouldn’t be awful. As I said last night, we are all different and like different things. Movies and books work that way – ones that some love, others don’t. Please know that I am not putting any pressure on you at all. It’s all meant in fun. Besides, if you are like me, you need to be in the mood to start a book.
        PS: I’m embarrassed to admit this but I’m reading my first Austen book. That is shameful that it took so many years 😉

        • Oh, I totally agree – every book will be different for every reader! But Lonesome Dove does appeal to me so hopefully I’ll like it when I get to it. 🙂

          Oh, which Austen are you reading? Are you enjoying it so far?

          • I’m busy with Mansfield Park and so far, so good. Next I have North and South by Gaskell on my list. And, if these two don’t satisfy, maybe I’l re-read Jane Eyre. If I enjoy Austen, I’ll take on Pride and Prejudice next.

            • I love Mansfield Park and in fact have it scheduled for a re-read soon. I’ve never been a big Gaskell fan – somehow her style doesn’t quite work for me, though I really must try her again. Sometimes it depends on mood as much as the book itself. P&P is great! Even if you find you don’t get along with Mansfield Park, it’s still worth trying P&P – loads of people love that one even if they’re not so keen on her others.

            • Ah, great…will definitely try P&P then. I’ll let you know what I think of Gaskell – never read her before.
              What’s Emma like? I was quite disappointed by the mini-series I watched over the past few days. Didn’t like Emma very much. Just like Ms Austen apparently said…people won’t like her.

  16. Call me convinced …

    Moby Dick is off my TBR list, although I shall read In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick – and hope that it is better – it couldn’t be worse, could it?

    • Hurrah! I’ve saved you! 😉 Yes, that one does sound good, doesn’t it? It seems to have snuck on to my own wishlist too, along with The North Water. Hopefully there won’t be any bullet point lists in either of them…

  17. Oh, dear me; plenty of smiles here (mostly cos it wasn’t me who read it)! Wonderful review (and comments) – quite enough to convince me never to consider this one! So thankful I wasn’t tempted to include it on my Classics Club list. I did read Heart of Darkness for that challenge though. (Yet to be reviewed) At least it’s short! And I shall be on tenterhooks waiting to see how you compare that with dear old Moby. You deserve a medal FictionFan!

    • Haha! Glad you enjoyed it – and that it’s saved you from ever reading the book! 😉 I’m thrilled to have got it off my TBR finally, but I really need a new ‘hate’ book now – I shall have to scour other people’s Classics Club lists to find something really awful. Solzhenitsyn, maybe! Can’t wait to read your review of Heart of Darkness – another one I’ve been putting off for years. I did listen to an audio version of it once, but really had no idea what was going on. I’m hoping I might do better with the paper version… reading classics is so much fun! 😉

  18. There, there, dear FictionFan, hope you have managed to relax and find your equanimity after all the suffering you’ve been through… It’s been such a long time since I read this and, knowing me, I probably skipped all the dull bits, enjoyed the good bits and thought at the end ‘There, that wasn’t too bad’. But then again, it’s because I saw the film first, and I loved Gregory Peck in it, so that made me stick with it…
    I hope you find Heart of Darkness more congenial, despite its rather controversial pedigree nowadays (is it colonial or not, racist or not).

    • Hahaha! I’m still in post-book euphoria at the moment – so happy to finally have finished it and got it off my TBR! Ah, I’ve never seen the film but despite my book criticism I’m looking forward to it. I’m assuming they’ll cut out most of the whale lore and just get on with the story… I hope! I did listen to Heart of Darkness on audio at one point, but really didn’t get to grips with the story at all – often a problem with audio. I don’t think I’ve got the concentration for it. Hopefully the paper version will work out better…

  19. It’s been years now since I read Moby Dick but I remember liking it a lot, even though I did wonder how Ishmael could possibly be telling us the inner thoughts of other characters. I seem to remember finding the information about whales fascinating but now you have me doubting myself and wondering if I should read it again…

    • Read it again!!!! *faints* Don’t do it!!

      Haha! In truth, more people seem to like it than hate it. It wasn’t so much that I found the whale stuff unintersting as that it slowed the story down to an absolute crawl. But it was also his attitude of constantly telling us how everyone before him had got it all wrong – and when he started going on about how fish weren’t like dogs, well! Let’s just say I didn’t think it was the most startlingly perceptive observation I’d ever heard… 😉

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