One day last week, while riding the subway home from work, I finished Moby Dick. I wanted to turn to the stranger next to me and say, “Look! I finished this book! I read it!” I was proud and excited and, if I’m honest, a little relieved.
What a strange thing to be so pleased that a book is finished. Is it strange to feel like a better person for having read a classic like this? A classic that is so important to contemporary literature? American literature? I feel more complete, like I’m one step closer to understanding the beast that is American literature.
As I mentioned, my only hope was to finish Moby Dick feeling like I had read a book that, for the most part, I enjoyed. That did happen. The last twenty chapters or so were enthralling. My heart was racing and I couldn’t read fast enough. I had to know what happened to Ahab and his crew.
I thought finishing Moby Dick would provide me with some sort of insight into everything I highlighted, but I’m not sure it did. I’m still left with a lot of the same questions that I had at the end of the first section. Why is religion so important? Why are the details so important? Why are there hundreds of pages in the middle of this book with little to no plot development? Why is Ahab so obsessed with finding the White Whale?
I think that word is key: obsessed. Obsession is the heart of Moby Dick. There is, of course, Ahab’s obsession with finding and exacting his revenge on Moby Dick, but there is also Ishmael’s obsession with the details, with the need to know and explain everything about whales and whaling. Ahab is emotionally exhausted of trying to defeat the whale, but he is inseparable from the fight. He knows nothing other than whaling and eventually he even, literally, becomes one with his ship when the carpenter makes him a leg out of his wrecked whaling boat. There is no turning back at that point. Starbuck asks him to stay, but he knows his fate.
“For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.”
“Aye, Sir, thou wilt have it so.”
“Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!”
“Truth, sir: saddest truth.”
” Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood: — and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old; — shake hands with me, man.”
Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.
” Oh, my captain, my captain! — noble heart — go not — go not! — see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!” (543)
As much as Ahab would like to listen to Starbuck and simply give up the chase and return home to his family, he cannot. Starbuck tells him it is not really his destiny, it is his choice. Ahab always had the choice to turn around, but he is never stronger than his obsession.
I’m not sure Moby Dick is something I’ll be obsessed with any time soon, but I’m so glad I read it. I kept finding things within Moby Dick that I had seen elsewhere: lines or phrases or images that had really been in allusion to Moby Dick. Now Moby Dick seems to be everywhere. I opened a book of poetry and read Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” a poem all about The Great White Whale. This is why we read classics, to know a little bit more about ourselves and our world.
Thank you to the women over at The Blue Bookcase for hosting this readalong! I don’t know that I would have finished without someone else reading along with me.