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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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STYLE

"A bold, nervous and lofty language," is the way Melville describes a Nantucket whaling captain's speech, and many critics think it's a good description of Melville's own style of writing-powerful, beautiful, and sometimes strange and uncomfortable.

Some of this strangeness may result from Melville's belief that his great subject required a new and different style. He often plays with the English language, as if the world of Moby-Dick could not be adequately described by the words already in existence. Some of the verbal nouns he uses-"leewardings," "domineerings"- didn't exist until he created them. He creates adjectives and adverbs out of past participles-"last cindered apple," for example. Many of his sentences are loping and long, moving along like a ship on the sea. The heightened language has echoes of the Bible and of Shakespeare.

In addition, many critics have noted echoes of the Greek epic poet, Homer, in the descriptions of the sea, and echoes of Shakespeare in the dialogue, particularly that of Captain Ahab. While most modern authors attempt to write dialogue as it would actually be spoken, Melville was not concerned with that. He wanted Ahab and the other members of the Pequod to speak with as much drama and impact as possible. And so they speak a language that can be far from every-day speech but that contains an enormous poetic power.



Shakespeare's influence can also be seen in some of the comic scenes in Moby-Dick. Like Shakespeare, Melville knew that a tragic story can benefit from moments of wit and humor. And so we hear Ahab's frustrated conversations with the thick-witted carpenter, and meet the wonderfully funny characters of Captain Boomer and Surgeon Bunger.

Finally, metaphors are very important to Melville, as they were to Homer and Shakespeare. He uses them to proclaim the importance of his story, to link Ahab to human heroes and great works of nature, to link whales to the unknown and the eternal. Indeed, all of Moby-Dick is built around a central metaphor: that this voyage of a 19th-century Nantucket whaler is the voyage of every human being through life.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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