Thursday, June 5, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Moby Dick by Herman Melville // Non-fiction Disguised as Fiction

Most of the classics, I enjoy. A good bunch, I tolerate. And there are only a few that I absolutely dislike and will never read again in my entire life.

One of the latter is Moby Dick, which I read for AP Lit a few years back. 

It starts out all fine and dandy. "Call me Ishmael." Interesting characters, interesting places, interesting situations. An inn where the only two options on the menu are two types of chowder, which only come in Size Large? That's pretty funny. An awesome fellow named Queequeg with tattoos all over him? Neat character. And of course, Captain Ahab - who can disregard the fellow with the most famous motivation in all of literature? Spectacular.

But then, somehow, it all stops. And becomes, not a story of a man with a burning passion to revenge himself on the villainous white whale, but a nonfiction book on the methods and history of whaling. Yes, the story does pick up again somewhere near the end, and ends magnificently, but most people would have quit by then. (I have a rare and sometimes self-torturing persistence when it comes to boring books.) Why does Melville do this? Why can't he just stick the whole story together and add the informative parts to an Appendix at the back of the book?

Well, one reason is that it's not very common for the Appendix to be twice the size of the book itself.

But seriously, isn't one of the rules of historic fiction, "Don't inundate your reader with information."? Your're supposed to weave it into the story. Make sure the reader isn't in the conundrum of not seeing the forest for all the trees. The forest is the story. The trees are the twenty chapters on the methods and history of whaling. What was Melville thinking?

I have a theory. My theory is that what Melville really wanted to do was write a nonfiction book on whaling. But, it wasn't such a hot topic then in the literature market. Publishers wouldn't take it! "Aha!" thought Herman, "I shall disguise it as a fiction novel, and maybe then I'll finally get a couple bucks out of the deal." So he slapped his original manuscript in the middle of a novella about a crazy captain and an albino whale, made some minor tweaks, and - lo and behold - it became a classic. Who knew that Captain Ahab would become one of the most well known characters in fiction? Though I did read somewhere that the book was rather ill-received during Melville's lifetime, so he didn't get any revenue out of it anyway. Though I'm sure he got lots of enjoyment from writing it!

Also, our narrator Ishmael disappears after a while. It's not exactly nice of him to do that - he made a commitment to be the narrator, and then cops out. And he was rather a good narrator.

Now that I think about it, I actually really do like Moby Dick - if only it weren't for the twenty-something chapters in the middle.



  1. Moby Dick was a tough book, but grew to appreciate what Melville was attempting. I read that he was worried about the state of the whaling industry and he wanted to document the practice of whaling. But I agree, why didn't he just appendix them to the back of the book? Why didn't his editors?

    1. I'm glad you feel as I did - I was wondering if I was missing something. But I guess Moby Dick is ultimately more about the documentation of whaling than it is about the plot.

  2. I've never read it. But I haven't read a LOT of classics! (Which I feel kind of bad about...but this is mostly the reason! They're huge and thick and tend to info-dump. :| Plus I get lost super easy. My brain demands easy to swallow YA mostly.) But this is such a famous book that's for sure. I've never read it, but I know that first sentence with the Call me Ishmael...and Captain Ahab. So I guess if Herman Melville did just disguise a non-fiction mess as a fiction novel...he got famous for it. ;)
    Cait @ Notebook Sisters

    1. NO MOBY DICK IS NOT LIKE OTHER CLASSICS! Yeah, some classics tend to info-dump (ahem, Les Miserables*), but others don't. Most are not half as bad as Moby Dick, and if they are rather info-dumping, you learn to do your own "abridging," in a sense. If you want some good short classics, try:
      HG Wells (sci fi novella awesomeness)
      The Sherlock Holmes stories (novellas and short stories)
      Jane Eyre (one of the best heroines in all classic lit imho)
      Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (SUSPENSE, creepy things, and a title character who is dead for the whole book)
      A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (coming of age story with some awesome writing)

      Ummmm... that's all I can think of for now, but I'm sure there are more!

      *I love Les Miserables and it is awesome. Except for the random digressions. Otherwise, it is in a tie with Narnia for my favorite book. :-)


Book discussions make the world a better place! Write me a comment - I respond to each and every one, I promise. So check back!

(YES! I LOVE TAGS and I do them! So tag away! But no bloggerly awards, though, like the Liebster or the Sisterhood of World Bloggers. Thank you!)