Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick is an enjoyable read.
Is this a controversial statement? If you ask high school and college students forced to read it, nine times out of ten—in my experience—they will tell you they dislike reading Moby-Dick, even if many of them do enjoy some of the imagery and characters. This great novel is also one you may find frequently in articles of dubious or inconsistent quality claiming Melville’s masterwork is overrated, such as a 2018 article by Rachel Hall at Study Breaks titled “5 Classic Novels Not Worth Your Time” or a 2017 article by Zoraida Córdova at Bustle called “9 Overrated Classics and What to Read Instead” (in Moby-Dick’s stead, Córdova recommends a YA time travel novel by Heidi Heilig). A 2018 LitHub essay by Emily Temple titled “11 Literary Classics We Not So Secretly Hate” suggests a significant number of her readers will agree that Moby-Dick is one of the most disliked entries in the Western canon. These three listicles are silly examples, of course, but the great writer Ray Bradbury—who wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 big screen adaptation of Moby-Dick—stated even he had “never been able to read the damned thing.”
Not everyone dislikes reading this difficult novel, though. Consider the metal band Mastodon, a bunch of hillbillies in Atlanta (I grew up an Ozarks hillbilly myself, so I say this endearingly) who love Melville’s story so much that they crafted their 2004 breakthrough heavy metal LP as a concept album adaptation of Moby-Dick. Or consider the one and only Bob Dylan, who persuasively details in his 2016 Nobel Lecture—which works alongside his last ten albums to bring his audience to a classical understanding of American poetry (meaning poetry here in the Aristotelian sense)—the reasons Moby-Dick is important to him and should be important to us. The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books shows that many of the greatest contemporary British and American writers consider Moby-Dick one of the best English-language novels ever written.
I count myself in the number who not only respect but also enjoy Melville and Moby. Those of us here may find the book difficult, sure, but immensely rewarding. For its rhythmic prose, imagery, and themes, Moby-Dick is one of my favorite novels.
First, rhythmic prose abounds in Moby-Dick, making the novel’s language as beautiful as poetry. For example, “But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul.” Prose is rarely as beautiful as poetry, but Moby-Dick does a wonderful job achieving that status. The writing depicts an ominous, epic story, and the continually poetic prose contributes to the ominous, epic feeling of the work.
In Moby-Dick, Melville is more akin to Homer, Shakespeare, or Milton than he is to Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, or Nathaniel Hawthorne. This should be no surprise, as, indeed, we know Melville had Shakespeare very much on his mind while writing Moby-Dick, because of the many, many references spread throughout the work, Melville most references Shakespeare and the Holy Bible. Also, we know Melville keenly wished to create an American epic poem, which he tried directly with Clarel in 1876. Little did he know he had come much closer, indirectly, previously, in 1851, even if he would not be recognized for this until after his death.
Second, the imagery in Moby-Dick injects beauty into this grand tale. Lines like, “That winsome sky did at last stroke and caress him,” and, “The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb,” are thickly spread throughout the book. Wondrous similes are the predominant literary device in the imagery, but there are also many fantastic metaphors.
Third, the themes—of which Melville explores many—are Biblically concerned and worth considering. One of the predominant themes is the consequences of choosing evil. For example, Captain Ahab chooses evilly to seek vengefully for the whale, Moby-Dick, who took his leg. Along the way, Ahab displays the fact that he does not truly care about God, humanity, or even his own crew. The consequences of Ahab’s choosing evil include the deaths of Ahab and his entire crew, except for a sole survivor.
So Moby-Dick’s poetic prose, abundant imagery, and worthwhile themes combine to make this classic book not only an important novel but also an enjoyable and thoughtful read.