Last year I completed a short critical analysis course and one of my assignments was to analyse a piece of my favourite literature. I chose Moby Dick, no surprise to some of you who know my obsession with the white whale.
I chose the opening paragraph and as most of you know starts: “Call me Ishmael.” The book like the whale is a behemoth but Melville chose to start it with a sentence of just three words.
How can a sentence of three words contain so much? the answer to that is why I love language, psychology and storytelling.
- It introduces that this is a first person narration story
- It has a curious structure for a first line. Something about it feels awkward. Like it is being whispered in the dark.
- The sentence alludes to mystery. We assume it’s not his real name, and so we begin to wonder why.
- It’s not a particular common name and is steeped in Biblical tradition so we might understand he is somehow an outsider to everything just as Ishmael is in the Bible.
All of this and more from three words. I have bored you enough already, but before I go I must say one more thing at the end of the first paragraph he mentions passing a coffin as the reason to go to sea and at the end the book, the last page, well I wont spoil the end but that is not a coincidence.
My journey into the analysis of literature I feared would spoil my reading but I have found that actually it has enriched it, and enabled me to revisit books too. To understand the precision and intention of the author is to really appreciate the art.
Have you got a favourite sentence or paragraph of a favourite book you like?