Sunday, January 3, 2010

Autumn of Dick - Weeks 11 and 12

After thirteen weeks and twelve reading assignments, we are finished with Moby Dick! Pat yourself on the back - it is a long book, and not an easy one to get through.

We don't have to worry about spoilers, do we? Moby Dick strikes me as a book for which most people know the ending, from seeing movies, or parodies, or from English teachers. I learned a lot about Moby Dick from hearing a college English professor discuss Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I'm going to discuss the plot developments in the last fifty pages or so, The novel's final fifty pages or so contain some of the most famous passages in all of American literature.

In previous chapters, the Pequod had met ships that had recently seen Moby Dick. Every successive ship seems to have seen Moby Dick more recently than the last, so Ahab seems to be getting closer to his quarry. The Pequod meets the Rachel, a ship that has seen Moby Dick very recently. The Rachel is missing one of its boats, and the captain's son is on the missing boat. The Rachel asks Ahab to assist in the search for the missing boat, but Ahab is too obsessed with finding the Whale to lend a hand. Starbuck realizes how dangerous Ahab's obsession has become, and eventually decides that the only way to stop Ahab from killing them all in his obsessive quest to kill Moby Dick. Starbuck goes to the door of Ahab's cabin with a rifle drawn, as if to kill him, but loses his nerve, and walks away. To a modern reader, that seems like such a turning point - it is clear now that Ahab is going to get everybody killed. The Pequod finds Moby Dick, and, over three days, has a series of violent encounters with the white whale, during which crew members die and the boats and its oars become increasingly damaged. On the third day, Moby Dick kills Ahab and destroys the Pequod. Ishmael survives by finding Queequeg's coffin/life buoy and holding on for a day and a night, avoiding the suction of the Pequod's sinking, before he is rescued by the Rachel.

If you found the first 550 pages to be boring, the last two selections should make you get it - Melville has some serious game as a prose stylist, and when he puts that great voice to use describing actual action instead of matter-of-factly discussing the finer points of the whaling trade, it is a sight to behold. The climactic three day fight with Moby Dick is surprisingly exciting - much thrillingly narrated than you would expect from a novel published 150 years ago.

What are your thoughts on the last two sections? I think that the first and last fifty pages of the novel are its two best sections, by far. The start of the novel is a masterpiece of character development and foreshadowing, and the last fifty pages is one of the more exciting sections of any classic novel that I've ever read. You just have to put up with a lot of non-fiction in order to get there.

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