Yesterday, the Moby-Dick Big Read uploaded the final chapter of the book. This morning we were given the Epilogue, and all of a sudden we had finished reading Melville’s wonderful, perplexing, thrilling, and beautiful book.
The Big Read has been a fantastic success, clocking up over a million downloads so far and receiving media coverage across the globe. Since news of the project caught my imagination back in September 2012, I have been posting weekly about my experience of reading the novel with the Big Read’s recordings.
Over the past five months my posts have grown into something like a personal travelogue of my adventure through my first reading of Moby-Dick. I was also pleased that it turned out to be a handy guide for other Big Read listeners, especially those who were curious to know more about the identity of each reader.
I wrote my posts in the ready, untidy spirit of a keen reader encountering the book for the first time, determined not to worry too much about how I might come across, or what mistakes I might make. I wrote in the hope that this approach would at least chime with the irreverent, democratic nature of Melville’s book and the Big Read itself. It has been a wonderful experience.
Note: Spoilers! If you have not yet read the ending of Moby-Dick, be aware that I discuss parts of it below.
Chapter 135: The Chase – Third Day, Read by James Naughtie. Artist: Stephen Grimes
BBC broadcaster Naughtie lends his Scottish accent to the final chapter of the book. The reading clocks in at nearly 33 minutes. What a remarkable piece of writing.
As with my posts about the first two days of the three-day chase that closes the novel, I don’t want to spend too much time analysing everything that went on here, because my own experience this time round wasn’t like that. I was aware on a basic level that there were a lot of statements and actions that tied into the key themes of the novel, and in awe of Melville’s mastery of action and suspense in this final stretch, such that even though he effectively set out the fate of the Pequod’s crew long ago in Chapter 41 (quoted below), I was still swept along by the narrative, still urging the men to deflect Ahab from his purpose.
Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.
I was also waiting to see what would happen with Fedallah, and how his strange prophecy would come true (that after death he would appear before Ahab again before the captain could die). I had thought to myself ‘oh, so we’ll see him dead at one point’ but boy, did we see him dead!
The moment when the Pequod sinks and the sea-bird is dragged down with it was almost hallucinogenic. It has burnt itself into my imagination like some key iconography I had known and forgotten, rather than a scene I have just read for the first time. Incredible.
Chapter 130: The Epilogue, Read by Mary Oliver. Artist: Gary Hill
The recordings began with Tilda Swinton asserting Call me Ishmael and end with another woman’s voice, this time esteemed American poet Mary Oliver, delivering us our narrator’s final segment. It is a short piece, not a page long. We learn where Ishmael has been in the scenes he has just narrated at such a distance, and how he was the lone survivor of the Pequod. The final line seemed beautifully judged, resonating with the great isolation of the men aboard the ship throughout the book, and of American individualism, and the solitary soul that each of us has. I won’t quote it here – to read it again, click here.
I’d urge you to check out the artist contribution to this chapter, a video titled Isolation Tank by Gary Hill. It is superb, perhaps especially good when you have the ending of the book in mind. Once you have watched it, learn more about it here (I recommend you watch it before you read about it).
The Epilogue is headed with the following quote which did not appear in the recording:
‘And I only am escaped alone to tell thee’ – Job
Job is referenced throughout the novel (including in the excerpt from Chapter 41 I quoted above) and is clearly a key text for Moby-Dick. I haven’t fully explored this yet, but what it did speak to for me is the curious (and much-discussed) nature of ‘Ishmael’ as a narrator. The narration of Moby-Dick is rather odd and slippery. Often the entity that told us Call me Ishmael seems to see things ‘Ishmael’ could not have seen and know things he could not have known.
Interestingly, in the Biblical story of Job, four different messengers say the line at the top of the Epilogue. They each say it to Job, who is being tormented by illness and misfortune as a test from God. That number agrees with the four broad categories of point of view in Moby-Dick: first person where we are certain it is Ishmael, a more distant first person that seems to be Ishmael, third person, and the chapters written as though they were a play. What’s also interesting is, as Prof. Patell points out, if Ishmael is the messenger, we must ask ourselves: who is Job?
The Delbanco introduction in my copy of the book also describes how Ishmael starts off as a rather fixed character, full of opinions and views borrowed from others, until the experience of loving Queequeg broadens his mind and seems to dissipate him into the world, such that as the figure of Ahab assumes primacy towards the end of the novel Ishmael is barely there. The Epilogue brings him back in full, first-person voice - and it is set in italics in a good print version, which sets it visually apart from all other parargraphs of prose in the book. My impression of this is that it seems to set apart a new Ishmael, united as one mind again but as a markedly different person than he was in the Loomings of Chapter 1.
The Voice Of Doom (a.k.a. Peter Donaldson, the lovely man who introduces each chapter of the Big Read)
It occurred to me that I hadn’t yet written about a key voice we have been hearing all through the Big Read: Peter Donaldson, that pleasant voice you hear intoning Moby-Dick or The Whale, by Herman Melville plus the chapter number and title at the beginning of each recording.
When I Googled him, I found out that he is a retired Chief Announcer of the BBC. The ‘Voice of Doom’ bit comes from the fact that in the 1970s the UK Government decided to record a message that would play over the radio in the event of nuclear war. They chose Donaldson to make the recording. When the press found out, he was dubbed the ‘Voice of Doom’. Rather fitting for a novel as dark as Moby-Dick, don’t you think?
The BBC has made an excellent little short segment about some of the people behind voice announcements, which you can see on YouTube. This is where I found out about Peter Donaldson. Zeb Soanes, who read Chapter 101 of the Big Read, is also featured. And you get to hear a wee bit of that nuclear war announcement (known as the Four Minute Warning).
The First Pursuit: On Reading Moby-Dick
I have a personal to-do list connected to the novel now that I have finished reading it for the first time. I want to see films of it, the John Huston one to begin with. I’d like to read a graphic novel version. I want this Melville Mug. I want to read Bartleby, the Scrivener. I want to go whalewatching. I’d love to visit Nantucket. I want this t-shirt. And I want to read Melville’s masterpiece again and to experience it at my own reading pace. And then I want to read it again and again, picking out different parts each time, deepening my reading of it.
For me, my first experience of Moby-Dick was: bones and sharks, fatal flaws and tragedy, breathtaking images and beautiful prose, roaring dialogue. A haunting awareness of the unknowable. And, of course, it was the White Whale, all other whales, philosophy and fate, elusive narrators and handsome cannibals. It was also technology, the whaling industry, its prows and lines, a fascinating novel of the workplace. This last, despite the fact I often failed as a reader to fully submit to what Melville is thought to be doing with Ahab, casting the working American man as tragic hero. Often, I was too bewitched by Melville’s acute eye for human nature, and rather oddly found myself using another, more contemporary American outlook – modern psychology and therapy - to describe the Pequod’s captain (he’s a narcissist! his crew are enablers!).
I do have some appreciation of where the novel stands in American culture, from reading about and absorbing the novel over so many months and having read, as soon as I finished the Epilogue today, the excellent Andrew Delbanco introduction in my UK Penguin edition of the book. I also loved an essay by Greil Marcus that I found online (especially what he says about Ishmael meeting Ahab for the first time).
Like any great book, Moby-Dick opens up its time and culture when you study. Melville was deeply engaged in writing about his America in the book, a land still thrilled by the possibilities of new identities and riven by industrialisation and racial tension. I’m also aware that events in the book were partly inspired by the real-life sinking of a whale ship called the Essex, which I would like to learn more about. A great book often opens up other literature, too. Investigating the intertexts for Melville’s great work soon leads you to Shakespeare and the Bible, a healthy smattering of classic myth and no doubt many other sources I have not yet detected.
But I must also remember to sometimes set aside study, theory, and the countless other ways in which time can be spent thinking about Moby-Dick, in favour of sailing through the great territories of its heart by reading it. I agree with Delbanco:
For anyone who has experienced Moby-Dick, it is a privilege to introduce it to another reader – but a privilege that is abused if extended much beyond the invitation. As Melville says of the sperm whale’s brow, ‘I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can’.
Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. Warm thanks to Angela Cockayne, Philip Hoare, the readers, the artists, and the entire Big Read team. Congratulations to all listeners who made it this far and thank you to those who took the time to comment here on my blog. It means a lot.
If you have enjoyed the recordings as much as I have, please consider making a donation to the project’s chosen charity, Whale & Dolphin Conservation.