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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Moby Dick

December 8, 2014
Reading about Moby Dick might be more fun than actually reading Moby Dick.

Reading about Moby Dick might be more fun than actually reading 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”?

  1. snarkynarwahl permalink

    This is one of the best dissections I’ve ever seen.. kudos!

  2. “What ho!” I’m all for getting that going as a greeting. I’ll go first!

    I recently hired a guy named Dick. (It’s what got me started on the Dick Hercules thing). Richard was on his resume but he introduced himself as Dick. He’s an older guy. I asked him if he went by Richard or Dick, hoping he would take the hint. He was very bold about going by Dick. Absolutely no issues. I can’t tell you how weird it was for many us of us to have to start calling someone Dick without worrying about the possible unintended jokes and subsequent snickering in just about any sentence in which his name was used. We’ve all kind of gotten used to it, I guess. But we shouldn’t have had to, is my point.

    I don’t like the perpindicular seam sentence. But if you chop it off after the whitish rod-mark part, you’re left with just a visual image. If you keep it going, you’re left with much more – a stalwart fellow scarred on the outside but otherwise entirely unaffected by the trauma. That seems a good bit of character description built into what is admittedly an awkwardly constructed metaphor/sentence.

  3. I loved reading Moby Dick. Loved it. But the “Cetology” chapter brought me to tears. Utterly useless!

  4. The thing that bugs me most about *some* “classic literature” is the long, rambling tangents the authors seem to get away with. Moby Dick would have been much more enjoyable if Melville had cut out all of the chapters on the history of whales and whaling, just as Les Miserables would be a much easier read without the random extra chapters on the history of France and the battle of Waterloo… Am I the only one who thinks these tangents are unnecessary?

  5. I have tried to read Moby Dick several times but l just don’t enjoy the style of writing. I do love ‘What ho!’ as a greeting though, it should definitely make a come back. Interestingly, a band called Mastadon has written a brilliant album called Leviathan based on the story – the song Blood and Thunder is great. It (almost) makes me think the book is worth trying to read again…

  6. Recently I attempted reading Moby Dick and failed. I’ve read Swann’s Way! But could not do the Dick. I gave up after the church chapter. Ishmael hadn’t even left land yet. The cover is lovely tho.

  7. I’m just glad you didn’t give away the ending. 🙂

  8. I admit I loved the sentence about the perpendicular seam caused by lightning. For me, it was so vivid even though I haven’t seen one. Or perhaps I have, because I can picture it so well in my head. It makes so much SENSE somehow, it’s a beautiful description. I guess it’s a matter of perspective, and how brains are wired so differently 🙂

  9. It’s very long!
    Here endeth the first dick-based innuendo.

  10. Is “what ho” like “land ho”? I have been wearing festive green and red earrings that say “HO” in two inch letters, so I should probably research that. I can relate to being old enough now to read what I want. I give myself permission to not like a book and stick it in the giveaway pile without guilt now. That first long paragraph you cited just made my head hurt, and when my head hurts from reading, I get mad at the author and want to shake him. To old dead authors: don’t make me have to sit and spend three minutes trying to figure out what your paragraph meant. Don’t make me pause ten times inside it to figure out if I am the stupid one. I would rather have undone reading that than to have done it, Herman. And BTW, the name Herman is less common than Dick. The one and only Herman I know right now has a six inch ZZ Top Beard, is not yet 40, and has an enthusiasm that others might think needs medication.

  11. Moby Dick is among my favourite books. That being said, I have to agree with you. There is a significant amount of redundancy in this book, I’m going to make a silly thing and quote myself:
    I don’t know whether Herman Melville intended it, but, for me, Moby Dick proved to be a monomaniac quest I felt obsessed to complete, even if it was a last thing I do. Maybe this sense of understanding I have developed for Ahab’s obsession was incidental, but it just seems too convenient to be unintentional…The battle with Moby Dick was fought in the field of understanding Melville’s conviction that there’s an aesthetic in all things. And Melville’s talent, his manipulation of the words and melodious use of language are enough to make you wonder if there is something inherently beautiful in all things, even in the piece of rope used to hunt whales.
    I still feel silly for quoting myself, but I’m still gonna click on “Post Comment”

  12. Violet Hunter of The Copper Beeches permalink

    I have not read Moby Dick but this was fascinating. Thanks for sharing. Will definitely hafta add that to the TBR classics. 🙂

  13. They say William James was a psychologist who wrote like a novelist and his brother Henry was a novelist who wrote like a psychologist. Having read both, I agree. So you might do The Wings of the Dove… if you can take it.

  14. I can see what you mean, although I love the first citation you used. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald on how they would describe things.

  15. I liked Moby Dick, but he could have used an editor to at least put all the zoology sections into an appendix or something. Classic or not, that sort of writing would not do well if it were published these days.

    • Bogie permalink

      Ironically, it didn’t do well in it’s day either. It didn’t receive recognition until Literary critics started insisting it was good.

  16. I shall now use “What ho, Tashtego!” in everyday life . . . and most likely confuse the snot out of everyone.

  17. Almost alone among the 19th century wordiness syndrome novels, I actually like Moby Dick. I liked most of the descriptions you posted as well, though I’m not sure why Melville gets a pass while I steadfastly despise Charles Dickens.

    As for semicolon usage, I would just take that as an indication that our sacred rules aren’t quite so sacred. 😉


  18. There’s no doubt that Melville’s writing weakens and makes a great novel a dread. There are chapters and passages in it which are terrifically funny, and stuff where Melville tries to make a point and strains, that should be there.

  19. Bobby Ray Stacy permalink

    Hey, looking good over here! I’m dying over at my place, with zero hits and zero followers. would you like to trade blogroll links? I could really use some inbound links and exposure. Let me know and Happy Holidays! Bobby

  20. I claimed to have read Moby Dick when I was young, but I lied. I didn’t read it; didn’t even attempt to read it. I used the movie with Gregory Peck to write my report. Now that I am older I must wonder, since my teacher did not uncover my deceit, if the teacher had actually read it since the movie is very unlike the unabridged book. I did read it a few years ago so I could no longer be labeled a liar. I think I should have stuck with being called a liar; hardest book on the planet to read. I recommend to any who wish to read it to buy the audio version and listen to it on a very long trip… but only if you are not driving and you are able to sleep through most of it.

  21. matt permalink

    Having read Moby Dick I thoroughly enjoyed it. I disagree about most of your points about them being bad sentences as to me the imagery holds well. In the case of the semi colons, he’s just using them as an extended list – it may be wrong but it works for me.

    I do agree with those who mentioned that the book is about celebrating beauty in aspects of all things. Melville’s love and knowledge of whales and whaling bursts from the page in his convolutedly descriptive metaphors and I dare say that part of the greatness of “What ho tashtego!” comes from the contrast it creates against the sea of sentences.

    I will say that dedication is needed to read this book as if you don’t read regularly, or at least a good section at a time, then you WILL forget what is trying to be said amongst the descriptive language.

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