Moby Dick is told by Ismael, a young man who gets a job on a whaling ship and soon after discovers that the Captain, Ahab, has an ulterior motive for the voyage that goes beyond whaling, he is on the tracks of Moby Dick, the giant, white whale that bit off his leg.
Melville writes beautifully but to be honest the level of the language is quite high, at times it's like reading poetry or the bible, so I can understand why some people, particularly learners, might find Moby Dick a bit hard-going. In this case, using an abridged version or graded reader may be a good idea. Alternatively you could focus on some key extracts, like this one where Captain Ahab confesses the folly of his obsession with the whale, revealing one of the book's key themes, revenge.
"Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day- very much such a sweetness as this- I struck my first whale- a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty- forty- forty years ago!- ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without- oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!- when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before- and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!- when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts- away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow- wife? wife?- rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey- more a demon than a man!- aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool- fool- old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!- crack my heart!- stave my brain!- mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!- lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!”
“Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck’s- wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away!- this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket.”
“They have, they have. I have seen them- some summer days in the morning. About this time- yes, it is his noon nap now- the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”
”’Tis my Mary, my Mary herself! She promised that my boy, every morning, should be carried to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail! Yes, yes! no more! it is done! we head for Nantucket! Come, my Captain, study out the course, and let us away! See, see! the boy’s face from the window! the boy’s hand on the hill!”
But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the airs smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swarths- Starbuck!”
But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there, Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail."
Reflecting on revenge, I came across this discussion question thanks to Lingoties.com - Why is retaliation enjoyable for some people?
As a usually calm person, it is hard for me to understand how someone can have such strong feelings against another. Saying that I have been fortunate in my life not to have experienced real unjustice. I am a people pleaser, of course during my life I have conflicted with certain individuals, that is inevitable, but on those rare occasions I have been able to appreciate my part in the guilt and see how my actions helped to bring about the circumstances that led to that situation. Instead to seek revenge you must be sure that you are right. It's a form of conviction. When Captain Ahab speaks to his crew of his quest it drums up a near religious fervour that infects everyone, including the narrator. I can see correlations between religion and revenge. Although unlike revenge, religion is usually associated with good, both give a person a purpose in life, something to live for. Revenge is a driving force and motivation for countless heroes in books and films. I saw a TV series last year called Revenge about a young woman who blamed a wealthy and influential family for her father's fasle arrest, imprisonment and ultimate death. Over the years she worked on an extremely elaborate plan to avenge her father but more often than not it caused her more pain than those she really sought to affect. This is similar to Moby Dick as in the end Ahab's thirst for revenge leads to his own death and that of (nearly) his entire crew. Moreover, in the TV series the main charcter begins to see her targets no longer as the object of her frustration, but as real people. In fact, Captain Ahab in the above quote admits that revenge has taken over his whole life and he wonders at all the time he lost. Captain Ahab, perhaps to make sense of his quest, admits that his revenge is longer about the whale but pushed forward by some kind of supernatural force.
The type of revenge that the woman in the TV series seeks could be considered more noble than Ahab's personal vendetta because it is for someone else. Seeking justice for wrongdoing done to others can be a good cause, think of the Black Lives Matter movement or campaigns for the recognition of war crimes. But like any movement where there is strength of feeling , it can be used as a vehice for personal aims that may not be truly connected to the cause. Feeling part of a group, having something to fight for, may be a source of enjoyment. Somebody raiding a shop in a riot might be taking advantage of the situation rather than attaching a strong symbolic meaning to it.
Holding onto strong negative feelings can be tiring and stressful for the carrier whilst the person those feelings are directed to may be blissfully unaware of the suffering they are causing and if aware of it, may not care. In Captain Ahab's case, as Starbuck points out, the whale who attacked Captian Ahab was a beast who attacked him was a beast acting out of instinct and it is ridiculous to think that it was acting to spite him.
In the title I have referred to a quote by US radio host, Bernard Meltzer, that reminds us that revenge keeps us tied to the past whilst forgiveness allows us to move on and look to the future. Instead of taking revenge it is better to create a future where a similar situation can be avoided or faced bravely armed with knowledge and insight.
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.