The work of Shakespeare forms the basis of a lot of our modern romance tales; Austen often has a heavy hand in shaping the form of the rest of our love stories; Dickens laid the foundations for the state-of-the-nation form of writing; and authors like Swift are the most influential when it comes to satire. In every genre, there are a couple of authors who really kicked everything off, and inspired everything to come whether directly or indirectly.
In this way, Herman Melville wrote the first monster movie.
Jurassic Park, Jaws (notably both books before they were films), Godzilla, and many more can trace their origins back to Moby-Dick because, whilst they may be strikingly different in many ways, at their heart they’re stories of man vs. beast; known vs. unknown, the power of nature and the hubris of man. And though Moby-Dick features these themes, it’s so much more than that.
The novel is based partly on Melville’s own experiences on-board various ships, and partly on the tale of the the whaling ship, the Essex, the tale of which was captured in the somewhat clumsily-titled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. The story is told from the point of view of Ishmael, an enthusiastic, occasional sailor who joins the crew of the whaling ship Pequod along with the “savage” harpoonist, Queequeg. The ship is led by Captain Ahab, who is in obsessive pursuit of the eponymous whale in order to seek revenge for the wrecking of his previous ship, and for the loss of his leg which the enormous Sperm whale bit off in the madness of the disaster. As the novel progresses, Ahab’s single-minded madness jeopardises the safety of the entire crew…
Melville’s prose is superlative. Between what sounds like a cut-and-dried tale of man vs. whale, is an intellectual, deeply-layered, brimming-with-symbolism meditation on the nature of, well, pretty much everything from the sea, to faith, to revenge, to America. Ishmael – or is that Melville? – soliloquises at length over the tale’s themes, bursting into paragraphs of dense, poetic imagery that taking the reader upon an effortless journey; his sentences almost musical at times. No wonder then, that Melville’s nautical masterpiece is mentioned in the same breath as other contenders for the title of The Great American Novel.
Indeed, Moby-Dick might be perfect were it not for being infuriatingly peppered with chapters on the fundamentals of seafaring. Every now and then, Melville will dedicate a few pages to the function of a particular rope, role, lever or person onboard ships generally. To Melville’s credit, he was an avid sailor and these chapters provide an invaluable insight into sailing and whaling in the 19th century. The trouble is, a literary masterpiece isn’t the place for these records, and these short tangents prove to be a trial to wade through, often rudely interrupting the flow of the story.
However, these occasional departures are a minor annoyance in what proves to be a thrilling and ambitious work of storytelling, and Melville’s depictions of seafaring life, the primal pleasure of the hunt, the camaraderie and mutinousness of sailors, the brutality of the kill, and the ever-present dangers of the ocean are as tensely-plotted as they are eloquently-spun. Moby-Dick is quite simply one of the most captivating and well-accomplished novels ever written.