A review by tobin_elliott
Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale by Herman Melville

adventurous challenging dark emotional funny informative inspiring mysterious reflective tense slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? No




This is just a fantastic novel. And it fails so badly.

As I made my way through this, I began to get the drift of the novel when it took 23 chapters for Ishmael and Queequeg to even get out to sea. Then it was four chapters of info dump. I don't even think there was a mention of a white whale until the 32 chapter? And then, more info dumps.

I tried to get a handle on this novel and this is the best I can come up with...imagine the voice of Rod Serling as he says,

Imagine, if you will, a timeless place, where the strange and impossible can happen.

A place where Frank Herbert, still heady with the excitement of having finished his novel
DUNE, looks to write a similar, yet opposite novel, a bigger, better version of both THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and JAWS. He finds himself swapping sand for saltwater, sandworms for whales, Stilgar for Queequeg, and Baron Harkonnen for Captain Ahab.

When he finishes it, he hands it off to
HOUSE OF LEAVES author Mark Z. Danielewski to add some completely unnecessary interjections that have nothing to do with the plot, as he knows Mark is very good at this.

Mark, then wishing to add some verisimilitude to the burgeoning novel, then hands it off to a writer for the Enclyclopidia Brittanica to add facts on whales, the whaling industry, the significance of "white", facts about rope, more facts about whales, and any other minutiae that may have been mentioned in the dwindling story.

Finally, once that's completed and the novel is now about 40% story, 40% facts, and 20% author's opinions, then Cormac McCarthy is brought in (under strict instructions to leave the damn apostrophes and quotation marks alone) to wordsmith the hell out of the entire thing with the aim of making it prettier, but far more dense.

They'll all agree to slap the name "Herman Melville" on as the author, dust their hands off, and congratulate each other on a job well done.

No one will ever accuse Stephen King of writing too much ever again.

Reader, you've just entered the White Whale Zone.

Okay, so maybe that's a little bit of a crazy scenario, but it's as close as I can come.

At its heart, the main storyline is a good one, and it's actually very gorgeously written. There's a part of me that wants to read the basic, 200-ish page story of Ahab stalking his white whale, without all the side stories, opinion pieces, and informative asides. 

Still, the writing... Even the completely unnecessary side trips to get far too much information on some of the crew, eating whale steak, and the difference in crow's nests do come across as interesting, again because the writing is good.

But the points where Melville kills all wind and lets the sails hang limply, his plot dead in the water as he hammers the reader mercilessly with the cetology of various species of whale, etc...they were, while informative in the extreme, were as interesting for the most part as being offered a hearty mug of sea water to drink.

Overall, the combined effect of all of these various passages do serve to make the reader feel each day of the Pequod's long three-year journey, so the novel does sell the journey. 

And Ahab? I have to say he's as unlikable a character as I've ever met in fiction. 

Overall, while I'd never dive into this novel again, I must say, I'm glad I experienced it. I'm glad I got to revel in Melville's gorgeous prose, and I'm glad I met Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck and, yes, even Moby Dick himself. I am richer for having read this novel.

And for that reason, while it's deeply flawed, I have to give this book four solid stars.