Week 1: The Point of Departure

Hello, everyone! I’m Matt Bucher and you might remember me from such group reads as “Infinite Summer,” “Murder in the Desert: 2666 and You,” and “The Ontological Despair of Ramona Quimby (and Her Sister): A 32-week Read-Along Course.” I’m happy to be here with you all as we try to read Moby-Dick in six weeks of summer. My way of getting around this is by reading as fast and furiously as I can before the official starting bell rings. When I first tried reading Moby-Dick, I’d take my time with the first 100 pages or so, relishing the time Ishmael spends in Nantucket, on dry land, and getting on the ship. That’s how Melville hooks you. However, when we pushed off the docks and faced the endless horizon of the sea, I’d start to get a little panicky. I’d long ago read a comic-version of the story so I knew how awesome the ending was, but between Chapter 21 or so and the end was a pacific-wide stretch of story that I had trouble sinking my teeth into. This time around, with the compressed schedule and all, I’m taking the aggressive approach of licking my thumb and *skimming* the first 20 Chapters, just driving right up to the Pequod’s departure. In all fairness, I’ve probably read that first 20 Chapters a half-dozen times, and once partly this year when we went back and examined Father Mapple’s sermon for the 2666 read, and while I love it dearly, the heart of the novel, I believe, is that chase for the whale. I love stories of the sea, especially stories of people who are pushed to the very limits of human endurance and experience (polar explorers and Holocaust survivors mostly), but I would not automatically read any story about a whaling adventure (although I probably would watch any giving episode of “The Deadliest Catch”).

What makes Moby-Dick special is its characters. Melville’s ability to create a voice inside the head of Ishmael that is still able to align with the empathy and thought patterns of readers 150+ years later is truly a stunning achievement. What I mean by empathy there is causing the reader, even in some small way, to think, “That’s how I would react, too!” or “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” This leads me to make even broader generalizations and say that when we talk about the author’s “style” we end up talking about characters. Diction, word choice, point of view, all of it ends up being in service of creating memorable characters—especially when we end up seeing the story unfold through a particular character’s eyes. Which leads me to this: Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale? How is Melville playing upon traditional ideas of the hero or the hero’s quest (the odyssey) by having Ishmael appear to be a passive observer throughout much of the book?

6 thoughts on “Week 1: The Point of Departure

  1. Mish May 24, 2010 / 4:40 pm

    Hey there, I just found out about this read-along a few seconds ago. I figure now is as good a time as any to cross Moby Dick off my reading list.

  2. Paul May 25, 2010 / 3:02 pm


    I agree that the beginning is really enjoyable. I had a lot of fun reading about nantucket and all. I only hope the long voyage lives up to the expectation.

  3. Christina Wilson May 26, 2010 / 12:19 pm

    Matt, I’m still mulling over the question you pose about who is the central character of the book. My knee-jerk reaction is to say Ahab, but when that happens, I always like to examine why. I think to point to any one figure (Ishmael, Ahab, the whale, The Pequod, the sea itself) would be slightly askew. There’s something deeply ethical about the book, in the sense of its meditations on connections to others / the world and the obligations that grow out of such relatedness. I want to say it’s the intersection of all these “main characters” distilled through the consciouness of Ishmael that is main character — a sort of unified soul Emersonian-type thing.

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