Moby Dick is a big book, full of deep images and stark characters set against one of the harshest jobs ever undertaken by man--whaling. Herman Melville, a writer of great vision and views that were decades ahead of their time, poured his soul into Moby Dick. Sadly, he died broke, and several years after his death, critics finally realized the power and scope of his novel.
For the first-timer picking up Moby Dick, it is quite the task. The novel is dense with allegory and references to Shakespeare and the Bible, to name just a few. If you decide to read the book, I have a few simple suggestions. I'm not claiming to be an expert, but I have read the novel almost a dozen times.
First, skim or skip all of the sections about whaling. More specifically, where the descriptions of the rendering of the blubber and other whale harvesting chapters are concerned, skip them. They show Melville's knowledge of whaling, but do little to further the momentum of the story.
Now, when the men are on the whale boats, chasing, harpooning, and killing whales, these pages give great insight into the main characters. Read these and enjoy the high adventure.
Second, think man vs. nature. After all, it is the crux of the novel. Moby Dick took Ahab's leg and the maniacal captain wants revenge on the white whale. By the time you finish the book, you will also see a mythical side of Melville as evidenced by this enigmatic white whale called Moby Dick.
And Melville, having been on whalers and traveled a great deal to faraway islands with different races and cultures, made a statement that is just as true today as it was a century and a half ago.
Ishmael, the narrator of the story, thinks about sharing his bed with Queequeg, a South Sea islander, headhunter, and possible cannibal. At minimum, he is most assuredly a savage. Ishmael rationalizes the situation simply.
"What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself--the man's a human being as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."
A beautiful passage. Very thought provoking. A novel idea for 1851.