::Literate Blather::
Monday, April 23, 2007
Reading Moby-Dick: Part Five
Chapter Five: Ahab

"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.
- Moby-Dick


At 11:45 p.m. on Monday, April 22, I finished “Moby-Dick.” With a deep satisfied sigh, I re-read the last sentence and then closed the volume and leaned back into my pillow.

After two previous failed attempts – I had finally done it. After more than two months, I had completed one of the greatest and most challenging reads in American literature.

The monstrous tome had been conquered; harpooned, if you will.

The last 50 pages of the novel were outstanding. It was – by far – the best part of the book. After one of the most agonizing, tedious build-ups I had ever experienced, Melville delivered. The suspense became nearly agonizing and at times I wanted to scream at the heavens like Ahab.

Yet, there are no surprises in “Moby-Dick.” The novel ends just as it should.

That’s why it’s finally time to discuss Ahab. Mystifying, terrifying, and dangerous Ahab.

He is perhaps the most complicated and compelling figures in literature. Ahab is not likable and, in fact, many consider him a villain. His obsession with killing the White Whale borders on the maniacal, but calling him a villain is too simplistic. Ahab is more the misguided, doomed hero. He is defiant, obstinate, and a brilliant sea captain.

He is the great American. He captures the spirit of the United States in Melville’s pre-Civil War era. He could be a grown up Huckleberry Finn who has let his abusive history finally catch up to him.

In fact, literary critic Harold Bloom writes in his book “Genius” that Ahab joins the characters of Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass” and Huckleberry Finn as the three most definitive American literary characters.

Bloom goes on to call Ahab the “American King Lear.” It’s a compelling comparison. Both men are aging masters of their universe. Both men are single-minded and ultimately bring about their own doom.

So what is Ahab’s quest? On the surface, it seems a journey for revenge. Forever marred by his first encounter with the White Whale; an encounter that ripped the lower part of his leg off and left him delirious and near dead. But the White Whale isn’t a whale – he is merely a symbol.

Ahab is hunting his fate – his destiny. He is hunting God. “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” Ahab shouts as he tries to lobby his crew to help him stalk Moby-Dick. This is a man who fears nothing – who will risk everything in his defy God.

There’s a reason why most of the crew on the Pequod are named after Biblical figures. There’s a reason why there are few Christians (or white men) on board. Most of the crew is pagans or atheists. And they all die; every one of them.

Except for Ishmael.

But Ishmael knows he has been spared for one reason; to tell the story to others.

In the end, the Christian God prevails. He rolls over and destroys the free-spirits, the defiant, and the bold American characters. How would Melville react to the fundamentalist explosion happening today in the United States? He would nod sagely and point to his novel: which accurately reflects that movement, which like Moby-Dick tries to drown the unbelievers.

“Moby-Dick” is an enormous book. Huge. But ultimately, Melville let it get away from him. The novel is flawed because of the tiresome passages about whaling, whaling history, and whaling anatomy. It nearly brings down the book and wading through some of the chapters is like sinking into quicksand.

You almost need a maniacal determination to finish.

I’m glad I read it. It has been one of my goals as a reader for a long time. But would I recommend it?

Difficult question. For some readers, I would; for other’s I would not. That sounds like a cop out – but it’s the best answer. If you are willing to read the novel slowly and carefully – to absorb it and patiently fight through the difficult sections – then that reader will find it a worthwhile endeavor.

But readers like that are rare these days.

Progress to date: Page 655 of 655.

Reading Moby-Dick: Part Four

Reading Moby-Dick: Part Three

Reading Moby-Dick: Part Two

Reading Moby-Dick: Part One

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