Fishy Whales

Have you ever seen a physical copy of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick? It’s… quite big. Perhaps not literally whale sized but still pretty hefty.

And it’s great – both in terms of its size and also in the quality of the writing. You totally do get swept along.

It’s quite a simple plot. No spoilers but it’s about Captain Ahab’s voyage to to get revenge on a whale called Moby Dick. There are other plot points and things that happen along the way, but… Well, Melville seemed to think he needed to pad it out a bit so added in a number of chapters that are just his opinions on things.

Here are a couple of my favourites.

Chapter 32 is about why whales should be considered fish. In fairness, the book was published in 1851, a few years before Darwin’s published On The Origin of the Species, but Melville himself points out that Carl Linnaeus’s System of Nature had separated whales from fish back in 1776. He knew that they had warm blood, lungs, and so forth.

However, Melville says that

I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.

Then says he considers the matter settled and moves on. Clearly Simeon and Charley were very persuasive.

Chapter 42 is about why the colour white is scary. It starts off by looking at things that are both scary and white:

This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect.

But it gets a lot more philosophical by the end:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

Yes, he could tell the story itself in a short novella – man obsessively searches for whale – but you know, that wouldn’t be nearly so much fun.

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5 thoughts on “Fishy Whales

  1. Wow, I don’t read many classics but this certainly sounds like an interesting one. Again, I’ve never read this, but I actually thought of A Series of Unfortunate Events when I read this review, since it seems like Lemony Snicket often just stuck his opinion at the beginning of chapters.
    Also, the color white IS quite scary haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Lemony Snicket has read this – there’s the “call me Ish” joke in The End if nothing else 🙂 LS is great though, I’m sure his books are supposed to be a bit miserable but I always found them to be a lot of fun!

      Liked by 1 person

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