Book Review: Moby-Dick or, the Whale by Herman Melville


My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What an utter waste of time ‘Moby Dick’ proved to be.

There are times when you wonder just the state of publishing was in the 1850s when Melville’s ‘classic’ was written. I get it that you have an iconic image – crazed sea captain seeking revenge of the monstrous beast which took his leg – but you’ve surely got to have more to the story than that?

In essence, what you have with ‘Moby Dick’ is a short story – very short if you cut out what is actually the more interesting first part about the narrator, Ishmael, meeting the peculiar Qeequeg and their ensuing friendship. Despite this build up, it becomes entirely irrelevant to the story and indeed the narrator himself has literally no part to play bar being the one one to survive at the end.

Whereas you have writers like Mary Shelley writing much earlier and recognising they have nothing much more than a long short story, or novella, Melville packs his novel with interminable sections telling us everything we could possibly want to know (and much, much more) about the whale. Followed by the strangest asides of stories and conversations, the book absolutely smacks of someone who realises they are short of material and needs to find fillers.

The book is often praised as ‘the first great American novel’ and referred to as enigmatic and strange because of a range of literary styles and devices used throughout the 400 odd pages. While the author clearly has superb grasp of prose in terms of style, I find myself siding with the original American critics who universally panned the novel. It’s absolute tosh.

There is, of course, room to be kind to ‘classics’ because of their enduring influence on culture. We can forgive ways of writing we no longer consider excellent, subject matters or views we might now consider distasteful and storylines we think, perhaps, lack the punch we prefer. ‘Moby Dick’ certainly has left us with references – the café chain ‘Starbucks’s’ if nothing else – but the book is one which I’m 100% certain is now talked about rather than actually read. Indeed, I’m not aware of anyone who has actually read it in my circle of friends. Slimmed-down child-friendly versions in school libraries, perhaps, but that’s it. Sometimes it is a shame books are more talked about than actually read. With ‘Moby Dick’, it is probably the better way.

Possibly the greatest crime is that not only do I not give a single damn about any of the characters, but I found little sympathies for the whales in the story. Now let me be clear, show me a video of whale hunting, like any video of cruelty to living creatures, and you will have me weeping buckets and feeling wretched inside. There’s nothing about whale hunting which I consider interesting, brave or remotely necessary. When I picture some of the deaths mentioned in the book (murders, really) I find myself wishing death on all those involved – and, of course, I get my wish in the end. But I do not find myself moved. This should be a slam-dunk quite frankly. I should be balling my eyes out. It wouldn’t even take gushing melodrama – which is ironic because Moby Dick abounds in exactly that. This is all the more bitter considering that the realism of the writing is absolutely there. You can tell Melville has lived much of this and knows the sailing life well. this is no land-lubber’s flight of fancy. The authenticity should make the book utterly gripping; but in this, it fails tragically.

In short, I cared for neither man nor beast, found the narrator irrelevant and if I was Melville’s editor, I would have slashed half to two thirds of the material and ended up with an eminently more pleasing book, even if not entirely convincing. Ultimately judgement: Best avoided.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 4.5 million times.


6 thoughts on “Book Review: Moby-Dick or, the Whale by Herman Melville

    1. I think most people either read a ‘child-friendly’ version at school, or an otherwise abridged version (which would considerably reduce the number of pages!) or do as you did – begin the book but never finish it. There are very few indeed these days who have read the whole thing – and with good reason!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You’re right. Ismael and Qeequeg were the interesting part. And never developed. I couldn’t ever see what Melville was trying to say. I plodded through most of it, and was impressed with all the nautical detail. You could at least have given it 2 stars.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah I think your finding of the nautical detail impressive may bias you towards that second star! For me, I’d have taken it all out. Despite this, a good friend who loves the book tells me that one of those chapters on whales is actually very important for understanding the book as a whole. I can’t see it myself however!

      Liked by 1 person

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