The novel is written with long sentences that can be confusing if you approach them in the wrong mindset.
So, remember these things.
1. Melville writes in sentences, even though they may be long, multipart sentences that are sometimes inverted (we expect subjects to be in the first part of a sentence, and the verb to come right after it), but they are still sentences that contain a subject and the verb. If you find yourself confused, find the subject and the verb and think to yourself, “who is doing what?”
2. Don’t be frustrated by this. Melville treats the sentence like a painter might treat his palette of paints. He explores all the different ways a thought can be put together and goes with constructions that are unique and original. What he is doing is intentional, and there are reasons for the choices he makes.
3. One of the reasons he intentionally writes difficult sentences is that he largely disdains his readers. Melville’s career started with a bang when he wrote a novel about a New Englander who abandons a whale boat on a South Pacific island and gets incorporated into the native culture. That novel is filled with “savages,” the constant threat of being cannibalized, and a lot of exotic, naked bodies. People loved it, but it was a type of novel that Melville didn’t want to keep writing.
4. Melville completely believed in two types of writing—the crappy type that simply keeps people entertained by playing on their emotions (he considered this “women’s writing”), and the good kind that stimulates the mind and operates in the realm of symbol, metaphor, allegory, etc. He wanted to write this second type of literature, but American audiences at the time were completely uninterested in such things.
5. He resented that state of affairs, and instead of adapting to it and creating stories that people could understand, he went in the other directions—writing complex material almost out of spite for those audiences.
6. So, those complicated sentences: this is Melville writing with anger and bitterness trying to create a piece of art that was exactly what he wanted.
7. What he wanted was art that was multi-layered, complex, and dependent upon a sophisticated readers.
8. Melville said that there were two layers to his stories—one that anyone would understand, and then another one that was hidden to the weaker-minded readers but detectable by the careful, sophisticated readers.
9. Our task is to take Melville up on this challenge and try to be that second type of reader.
I hope this helps. I hope you can be patient with this. If you find yourself frustrated to the point of breaking, just imagine Melville as an incredibly bitter man doing something self-destructive in order to create his masterpiece. It’s hard to think of a modern metaphor for this type of activity, but it might be like Jimmy Hendrix playing the “Star-Spangled Banner”—in that performance was completely “fucked up” (and I use this language because I want to convey the lower form of communication and the “dirtiness” it connotes) in a way that demonstrated Hendrix’s mastery of his instrument (only a master of the craft could make a guitar sound like that) and the irreverence (and possibly anger) that Henrdix wanted to project to a country that was still embroiled in racial tension a war in Vietnam that so many considered unjust. That sentence was Melvillian itself; if you missed it, I said that if you find the novel to be difficult, imagine Herman Melville as Jimi Hendrix.