Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

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Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

When talking about Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, I suppose it wouldn’t be untoward to look first at the actual story. After all, it is a thoroughly developed and interesting story, packed with vivid and human seeming characters.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for Norman Mailer, 6th for Joyce Carol Oates, 5th for Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and 4th for Elizabeth Spencer.)

In The Red and The Black, we have the poor but ambitious carpenter’s son, Julien Sorel. As the story progresses, Julien rises to become a tutor to a rich man’s children, falls in love, flees to study at a seminary, flees the intrigues of the seminary (and rises farther) to become another rich man’s secretary, falls in love again, and eventually falls from grace.

I don’t think I’m exactly giving away spoilers in saying the above. It isn’t like the basic plot of this book isn’t well known. Anyway, that quick summary is really far from giving away anything significant.

Regardless, impressed as I was with the overall story and characters, the most interesting aspect for me is how Stendhal twists human emotion and scheming together. The characters go about their passions in a scheming way at the same time that their passions drive their scheming thoughts.

For example, the wife of the provincial rich man who hired Julien to be his children’s tutor falls in love with Julien. Julien ends up falling desperately in love with her, but his first motivation is not love. Instead, he pursues Madam de Renal out of revenge:

When he went into the garden that evening, Julien was ready to listen
with interest to the thoughts of the fair cousins. They awaited his
coming with impatience. He took his accustomed seat, by Madame de
Renal's side. The darkness soon became intense. He attempted to clasp 
a white hand which for some time he had seen close beside him, resting 
on the back of a chair.  There was some hesitation shown, but finally 
the hand was withdrawn from him in a manner which betokened displeasure. 
Julien was prepared to regard this as final, and to continue the 
conversation in a light tone, when he heard M. de Renal approach.
 
The rude words of the morning still rang in Julien's ears. 'Would it
not,' he said to himself, 'be a good way of scoring off this creature,
so lavishly endowed with every material advantage, to take possession
of his wife's hand under his very eyes? Yes, I will do it, I, for whom
he has shown such contempt.'

Later, the daughter of the Parisian noble who hired Julien as his secretary decides she is in love with him. She eventually does become as passionate about Julien as she believes, but she initially goes after him out of boredom:

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: 'I have the good fortune to be in
love,' she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of
joy. 'I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a
young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not
in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for
Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti.  They are perfect, too perfect
perhaps; in short, they bore me.'


She turned over in her mind all the descriptions of passion which she
had read in  Manon Lescaut, the Nouvelle Heloise, the Letters of a
Portuguese Nun, and so forth. There was no question, of course, of
anything but a grand passion; mere fleeting affection was unworthy of
a girl of her age and birth. She bestowed the name of love only upon
that heroic sentiment which was to be found in France in the days of
Henri IV and Bassompierre. That love never basely succumbed to
obstacles; far from it, it caused great deeds to be done. 'What a
misfortune for me that there is not a real Court like that of
Catherine de' Medici or Louis XIII! I feel that I am equal to
everything that is most daring and great. What should I not do with a
King who was a man of feeling, like Louis XII, sighing at my feet! I
should lead him to the Vendee, as Baron de Tolly is always saying, and 
from there he would reconquer his Kingdom; then no more talk of a 
Charter ...  and Julien would aid me. What is it that he lacks? A
name and a fortune. He would make a name for himself, he would acquire 
a fortune.

Usually writers seem to pick one of these to dominate, but in The Red and The Black all this scheming and passion seems hopelessly intertwined and completely inseparable. Are these people ruled by their scheming, or their passions? Perhaps they can’t stop scheming any more than they can prevent themselves from being ruled by their emotions.

Now, I don’t know if this was Stendhal’s intent. Regardless, this is what made the novel fascinating for me. It was substantially more complex than I had been expecting. The story and characters are wonderfully done, but the interplay between these themes entranced me. It easily kept me reading all the way through The Red and The Black.