Chapter Three: There She Blows!
“So be cheery, my lads, let your hearts never fail,
While the bold harpooner striking the whale!”
One can only imagine the pain and agony of being cornered at a cocktail party by Herman Melville. How in the world would you get him to shut-up? Would he spend the next 30 minutes droning on about whale line? Would his tips about how to properly cook whale blubber stretch into the wee hours? Oh, my god, is he going to talk about the different kinds of whales – again?
The answer was probably yes.
There’s little doubt that one of the great challenges of reading “Moby-Dick” is Melville’s tendency towards long-winded sermons about whaling. Every agonizing detail is described in all its glory. These temporary sidetracks to the story often don’t feel very temporary.
In fact, I groaned audibly when I came upon the dreaded “Cetology” chapter on page 169.
In my other two failed attempts at reading “Moby-Dick,” Cetology was the beginning of the end. The chapter is 14 pages long, but feels like 30 pages. This is the first chapter where Melville takes a break from his characters and narrative – to lecture.
Cetology is about whales. Every different type of whale under the ocean – from Right Whales to dolphins. The chapter is divided into three books called:
I. The Folio Whale
II. The Octavo Whale
III. The Duodecimo Whale
The urge to skip this section is powerful – especially when your eyes begin to glaze over and you find your mind wandering to more satisfying endeavors like washing dishes or shoveling snow. Halfway through it this time – I felt a strong desire to vacuum the living room rug.
Agony, dreadful agony.
It is chapters like Cetology that lead the New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review to write in 1852:
“…If there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilled sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them [Moby-Dick]…”
That’s, of course, unfair.
There are passages of writing in Melville’s masterpiece so breathtaking – so magical – that a reader is forced to double back and read it again. The writing in these passages is that profound – that good.
Melville was writing an epic – a narrative of remarkable scope and imagination. Part of his goal was to build a world so real that he felt it necessary to describe every iota of it. That’s why we get the constant explaining.
Modern readers don’t need this type of exposition (it’s especially annoying because much of Melville’s information on whales is wrong. We’ve learned quite a lot of whales since the mid-19th century).
Patience is the key. A modern reader must make these narrative lectures part of the story – part of the experience. Go slowly and absorb them. Put the misinformation into the context of the time and the story.
It’s worth it and makes the magical moments even more magical.
Progress to date: Page 245 of 655.