Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Moby Dick
Despite a title that causes some snickering, Moby Dick by Herman Melville is a classic for a reason. When readers who love Moby Dick discuss Moby Dick, they talk about stuff like symbolism and theme. But when readers who despise Moby Dick explain why they hate it, they usually mention the way it’s written. The sentences are tough to read, and there are way too many of them.
I almost didn’t want to write about Moby Dick because people will automatically assume that I am making fun of the title, but I’m not. I’ve made fun of the title before, and it’s probably not fair to do that because the word “dick” didn’t mean the same thing back when Moby Dick was first published, so readers (probably) didn’t snicker at the title back then. If they did, they were ahead of their time.
Even though I’m not a big fan of this classic novel, I have to admit that Moby Dick starts off strong with one of the best opening sentences in all of literature.
“Call me Ishmael.”
As far as opening sentences go, it’s not a bad sentence. It’s short. It’s diagrammable. It tells you who the narrator is. But it’s misleading. It doesn’t prepare the reader for what comes next. And a reader like me needs to be emotionally ready for a sentence that soon follows “Call me Ishmael.”
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral that I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Maybe this shows my deficiencies as a reader, but I was okay with the “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” I think Melville (or Ishmael) could have stopped right there and gone straight to “I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Everything else just made the sentence worse (and the novel longer).
There are a lot of these kinds of sentences in Moby Dick. For example, at the end of Chapter 24 “The Advocate” is this sentence/paragraph:
“And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
Maybe the semicolon usage was correct back in 1850. Maybe it was a stylistic thing. I understand that. but it’s confusing to be taught one way to use semicolons in school and then see them used differently in classic literature. If I had used semicolons the way Melville used them in Moby Dick, I would have failed my English classes.
A sentence doesn’t have to be long to be a bad sentence (but it helps).
For example, this bad sentence at the beginning of Chapter 28 “Captain Ahab” describes a “rod-like mark, lividly whitish” on Captain Ahab’s face and neck.
“It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”
Maybe I’m wrong to not want more, but I was okay with “rod-like mark, lividly whitish.” To me, the sentence about “that perpendicular seam” is more distracting than descriptive. The thing is, I’ve never seen THAT kind of “perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it,” so it’s difficult for me to visualize it. Maybe rural readers in the 1850s were more accustomed to seeing seams in trees than they were in seeing scars. Maybe I don’t appreciate metaphors enough. Maybe that’s what keeps me from being a successful writer.
I’ll admit, it’s easier to read a difficult book when you look for bad sentences. I’ll never read Moby Dick because I’m old enough now to decide what I’ll read and what I won’t read. But if I absolutely had to read it again, I’d purposely look for bad sentences while I was reading. It’s fun to look for bad sentences. Also fun is trying to figure out what bad sentences mean. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle without so much necessary prior knowledge.
Not all sentences in Moby Dick are bad. I’d be foolish to suggest anything like that. Some sentences are great. I’ve already mentioned the first sentence. And toward the end of the novel in the final full chapter “The Chase-Third Day”, Captain Ahab shouts out:
“What ho, Tashtego!”
That’s a great sentence. It’s difficult to top a rhyming greeting or farewell. I’d never heard of “What ho, Tashtego!” I’ve heard “What’s up, Chuck!” but “What ho, Tashtego!” is way better because it rhymes. It’s like “See you later, alligator!” or “In a while, crocodile!” except you can use it to greet people instead of saying farewell.
I think we should bring back “What ho!” as a standard greeting (but I don’t want to be the first guy to try it). I think it’s time we mature adults reclaim the word “ho” and bring it back to its original meaning. We should make “What ho!” so common that nobody laughs or starts fights over it.
After that, we can take back the word “dick” and just make it a guy’s name again. But that might be asking too much.
What do you think? Were these sentences from Moby Dick really that bad? Or do I just NOT get it? What other bad sentences can you find in Moby Dick? What other book would you like to see next in “Bad Sentences in Classic Literature”?
I wouldn’t put the word dick in a book title nowadays. But crap?