Sascha Morrell
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A mountain separating two lakes.

A room papered floor to ceiling with bridal satins.

The lid of an immense snuffbox.

These seemingly unrelated images take us on a tour of a sperm whale’s head in Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick." On the surface, the book is the story of Captain Ahab’s hunt for revenge against Moby Dick, the white whale who bit off his leg. But though the book features pirates, typhoons, high-speed chases, and giant squid, you shouldn’t expect a conventional seafaring adventure. Instead, it’s a multilayered exploration of not only the intimate details of life aboard a whaling ship, but also subjects from across human and natural history, by turns playful and tragic, humorous, and urgent.

The narrator guiding us through these explorations is a common sailor called Ishmael. Ishmael starts out telling his own story as he prepares to escape the “damp and drizzly November in [his] soul” by going to sea. But after he befriends the Pacific Islander Queequeg and joins Ahab’s crew aboard the Pequod, Ishmael becomes more of an omniscient guide for the reader than a traditional character. While Ahab obsesses over revenge and first mate Starbuck tries to reason with him, Ishmael takes us on his own quest for meaning throughout “the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs.” In his telling, life’s biggest questions loom large, even in the smallest details.

Like his narrator, Melville was a restless and curious spirit, who gained an unorthodox education working as a sailor on a series of grueling voyages around the world in his youth. He published "Moby Dick" in 1851, when the United States’ whaling industry was at its height. Nantucket, where the Pequod sets sail, was the epicenter of this lucrative and bloody global industry which decimated the world’s whale populations.

Unusually for his time, Melville doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of this industry, even taking the whale’s perspective at one point, when he speculates on how terrifying the huge shadows of the ships must be to the creature swimming below. The author’s first-hand familiarity with whaling is evident over and over again in Ishmael’s vivid descriptions. In one chapter, the skin of a whale’s penis becomes protective clothing for a crewman. Chapters with titles as unpromising as “Cistern and Buckets” become some of the novel’s most rewarding as Ishmael compares bailing out a sperm-whale’s head to midwifery, which leads to reflections on Plato. Tangling whale-lines provoke witty reflections on the “ever-present perils” entangling all mortals. He draws on diverse branches of knowledge, like zoology, gastronomy, law, economics, mythology, and teachings from a range of religious and cultural traditions.

The book experiments with writing style as much as subject matter. In one monologue, Ahab challenges Moby Dick in Shakespearean style: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” One chapter is written as a playscript, where members of the Pequod’s multi-ethnic crew chime in individually and in chorus. African and Spanish sailors trade insults while a Tahitian seaman longs for home, Chinese and Portuguese crewmembers call for a dance, and one young boy prophesies disaster. In another chapter, Ishmael sings the process of decanting whale oil in epic style, as the ship pitches and rolls in the midnight sea and the casks rumble like landslides.

A book so wide-ranging has something for everyone. Readers have found religious and political allegory, existential enquiry, social satire, economic analysis, and representations of American imperialism, industrial relations and racial conflict. As Ishmael chases meaning and Ahab chases the white whale, the book explores the opposing forces of optimism and uncertainty, curiosity and fear that characterize human existence no matter what it is we’re chasing. Through "Moby Dick’s" many pages, Melville invites his readers to leap into the unknown, to join him on the hunt for the “ungraspable phantom of life.”