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by Herman Melville

Analysis: Writing Style


Convoluted, Grandiose, Highly-Wrought

Yo, you're reading Moby-Dick, not Dick and Jane. This is an amazing (and hilarious) novel, but it takes a wee bit of work to get into the swing of Melville's writing.

What do we mean when we say that the style of Moby-Dick is convoluted? Well, just check out the third paragraph of Chapter 42 ("The Whiteness of the Whale"). This paragraph is, you might notice, a 471-word sentence.


But because we're feeling generous today, we’ll look at a (slightly) shorter sentence from the paragraph before that:

Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. (42.2)

If (for some reason) your immediate reaction to that paragraph is not "Whoa, yes, that’s convoluted," think about it this way: the basic gist of this sentence are the words "There was another thought." What could be simpler? What could be more grammatically succinct?

But Melville embroiders this basic structure with lots of other words until we have this elaborate linguistic wedding cake with six different, interrelated clauses.

And don’t get us started on the joke that Ishmael uses this incredibly contorted and complicated sentence to say that... it’s going to be hard for him to phrase his thoughts in a way that’s easy to understand.

Apart from just being complicated and highly wrought (that is, elaborately crafted), Melville’s style in Moby-Dick is ornamented by really complex diction: "He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge" (41.23). Even when Melville’s sentence structure is straightforward, Melville uses complex, ornate vocabulary to generate a sense of grandeur and magnitude.

But hey: when you're writing a book about a) revenge b) the vastness of the globe and c) how amazingly awesome whales are, what are you going to do? Write simply? Pshaaaaw.

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