One of things I enjoyed about Graduate school (the first time around, when I got an MA in English) was that I was finally positioned to read some of the cornerstones of English literature—many of which I never would have on my own. One of those is the American Classic, Moby Dick, a novel which many people hold in high esteem.
Melville’s classic tells the epic story of Ishmael’s time on the Pequod, where he is drawn into Captain Ahab’s crazed quest to seek revenge against the great white whale. The book is an interesting character study of this focused rage and the effects of pursuing it.
Although so many talk about the virtues of this novel, none had mentioned to me quite how torturous of a read it is.
Sure, what you have heard about the novel is true; however, what you haven’t heard unless you’ve read it is that amidst all the good elements lie pages and pages, chapter and chapters of the most boring prose devoted to whaling you will EVER read. Perhaps if people had been honest more people would skip the book. Or perhaps people would be armed with a true sense of the book so they knew what they were getting into first.
Had I not been compelled to finish it for my Master’s reading list, it would have made the short list of books I haven’t finished. As it were, I skipped whole sections of the book.
Moby dick is not the only famous story with a whale in it, nor is it, as it turns out, the only famous whale story that’s presented a bit out of context.
I hadn’t heard that Jonah had a Bible book devoted to him. I had heard some version of a story about a man—Jonah—who had been swallowed by and lived within a whale for a certain amount of days. I was intrigued as to how this would go down, what kind of conditions he’d endured while in the belly of the whale, and how he extricated himself (or was expelled).
Sadly, the Book of Jonah does contain this story, although it’s really a small part. Jonah is a reluctant prophet when God calls upon him. He’s so reluctant that he tries to run away from God rather than preach to the people of Nineveh. His escape places him on a boat which experiences a turbulent storm. And when Jonah is deemed responsible (God’s wrath, naturally), the crew tosses him, hoping the strengthening storm abates. In the water, Jonah as swallowed by a whale (1:17), and while in there (apparently calm and not freaking out that he is inside a whale), he prays and repents, after which the whale spits Jonah onto dry land (2:10).
The rest of the story follows his three-day walk to Nineveh, and when he arrives, he proclaims their destruction in 40 days (3:4). What makes this book interesting is what follows. Typically, the destruction would arrive and the lesson would be: see, this is what happens when you mess with God. However, the king orders a fast (3:7) as a form of repentance and then God changes his mind (3:10). Even more interesting: this enrages Jonah (4:3).
Interesting to see someone go from a coward to having the stones to be angry at God for showing compassion—but if I was swallowed by a whale and then spit out, I might see life a bit differently.
God then leaves Jonah with a final lesson as he fumes—it’s really not Nineveh’s fault, God states. They’re stupid, so I have to watch out for them (4:11).
In the end, the whale is the most visual (and fantastic element) of the story, which sort of explains why it is so iconic. The whale makes a better icon because it’s intriguing, interesting, and not to mention that it looks better painted in a picture than perhaps a man fleeing or walking for three days. But does it effectively represent the intended point?