Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why People Don't Finish Moby Dick and How to Avoid It

In preparation for this book, I was thinking about what makes Moby Dick hard for many people, and I come up with three big reading barriers to the book, none of which is difficult to overcome.

One is Melville's tone. He's the guy who you can't quite figure out and treat a bit warily - is he joking or is he serious? Is he trying to make a fool of me? Does he really think what he's saying, or is he pulling our leg? Having read a lot of this guy, I've decided the answer is almost always both - yes, he's laughing at the world, at himself, and the reader, and he's being pretentious and overblown, and he's spinning the wild yarn ever bigger, but he's still deadly serious about it all even as he laughs at it. That combined cynical and ernest tone is a big part of Melville - he's both the jaded curmudgeon who has seen it all and the wide-eyed pre-teen excited by the world's adventures. But sometimes that tone just really confuses people.

A second is his patience. He opens the book with all those quotes and that definition. Really? He wants us to wade through those? Kind of tedious. He has a habit of getting in the middle of action and going off on an asside for three or four chapters and then coming back. He is in no hurry to tell the story. This is probably the toughest problem for readers, and it's akin to the Faerie Queene, one of our recent reads and one of Melville's favorites. Don't fear skipping ahead if what's going on bores you at any point and don't feel like you shouldn't be bored because it's "great" literature - you can always come back, and the boring stuff is often rich and humorous after you've gotten through it. (Note: the chapter labeled "Cetology" is traditional problem child - have a drink and put some music on before reading it).

The third is the symbolism. Everyone knows it is a book full of symbols, and most commentators want to build it into a full blown allegory, where all the symbols are replaced by what they symbolize and there's a second level of meaning that the story operates on. Yet you'll find a lot of debate over such basics as what divine being Moby Dick might represent, a pretty entry-level symbol if we're going to build this into an allegory. When you read the book, though, you'll find Melville really doesn't hide the ball - throughout the book, Ishmael, as a narrator, is a quizzical spectator who can't always figure these things out, who doubts the meanings he gives things and half-suspects or speculates on many things. He can't figure it all out and neither can we. Don't sweat the symbolism, and just listen to what Melville and Ishamel tell you; he'll often be quite explicity about what the Whale represents, but it's complicated and not just a simple symbolic equivalence. Most of the people who try to make everything into something else are just trying to snag their PhD or secure their tenure. Sometimes, a white whale is just a white whale. Still, it can be fun to play with the symbol stuff.

1 comment:

  1. The Cetology chapter knocked me out. But I've always wanted to go back and tackle MD again, as I was enjoying it immensely up until then.