Friday, October 19, 2012


“Call me Ishmael.”

This is how begins one of the most celebrated novels of the English language, Herman Melville ‘Moby-Dick’. Also called ‘The Whale,’ since it tells the story of hunting a Sperm Whale, at least on the surface, this is one of those books which is much more than it’s narrated story, a book which everyone has heard about but very few have actually read, or really understood it, unless you a devout literature student. [Confession: I have read half of the book; just couldn’t finish it!]. But, the book is popular, and respected; it is said to have brought romanticism into American literature, and so on. It is one of those books, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’, which you cannot read, but must know about it.

Therefore, it was no surprise that today (October 18, 2012) Google does a doodle on the 161th anniversary of the novel; yet, it’s a surprise! Moby-Dick? Today? Is it at all relevant today? I guess it is, so far as Captain Ahab concerned; he’s a literary creation you cannot so easily ignore, more like Iago, but more malevolent...

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is a novel by Herman Melville, first published in 1851. It is considered to be one of the Great American Novels and a treasure of world literature. The story tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has one purpose on this voyage: to seek out Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white sperm whale. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg, which now drives Ahab to take revenge.

In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and the metaphor to explore numerous complex themes. Through the journey of the main characters, the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God are all examined, as the main characters speculate upon their personal beliefs and their places in the universe. The narrator's reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor's life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices, such as stage directions, extended soliloquies, and asides. The book portrays destructive obsession and monomania, as well as the assumption of anthropomorphism—projecting human instincts, characteristics and motivations onto animals. Moby Dick is ruthless in attacking the sailors who attempt to hunt and kill him, but it is Ahab who invests Moby Dick's natural instincts with malignant and evil intentions. In fact, it is not the whale but the crippled Ahab who alone possesses this characteristic.

Moby-Dick has been classified as American Romanticism. It was first published by Richard Bentley in London on October 18, 1851, in an expurgated three-volume edition titled The Whale, and weeks later as a single volume, by New York City publisher Harper and Brothers as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on November 14, 1851. The book initially received mixed reviews, but Moby-Dick is now considered part of the Western canon, and at the center of the canon of American novels.
More here.

Moby-Dick, which tells the story of sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, has been chosen four times on Desert Island Discs - by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, J G Ballard, Penelope Lively and Patricia Highsmith. In its own day, it was received by many critics as a deranged rant. Henry F. Chorley, chief critic of London's The Athenaeum, called it "trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature".

The book, which was originally published in England by Richard Bentley as The Whale, is a beautiful and beguiling novel, full of metaphor, imagery and sexual innuendo (the Victorians didn't quite get what Melville was up to in his writing about sex, as, for example, in his short story The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids), and is by turns angry, playful and ironic, with searing soliloquies worthy of King Lear.
More here.

Jay Parini reveals how Herman Melville’s mysterious relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom ‘Moby-Dick’ is dedicated, ranged from admiration to ecstasy, in The Telegraph:
Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the two great novelists of 19th-century America, were close friends at a major juncture in their writing lives, and it’s hard to imagine a more fruitful, poignant or complex relationship. For Hawthorne, it was a connection that stirred deep intellectual interest. For Melville, it was a matter of love.

After several years in Boston as an inspector at the Custom House, Hawthorne moved to Lenox, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, in 1850. He lived in a small cottage with his beautiful wife, Sophie, and their two children, Una and Julian. The Berkshires were dominated by such imposing literary figures as Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Fanny Kemble and James Russell Lowell, but Hawthorne was a shy man who rarely ventured into literary society.
More here.

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