Here we are at the second checkpoint for our Moby-Dick readalong! I’m making great progress, so far. This checkpoint came a bit quickly, as I wanted to publish these posts on Thursdays (but still give us a full week for that first checkpoint). So, yes, now we’re readjusted and will have one full week for each checkpoint, until the final week where we’ll only be responsible for a few chapters.
Anyway, here are my thoughts on Chapters 21-38. Don’t forget to link-up your own posts, should you choose to write any!
One of the first things I’m noticing about the story, now that we’ve met all the crew, met Ahab, and set sail, is the surprising sort of harmony that exists aboard the Pequod. Although some racial disparities still exist on the ship (the mates all being white, their harpooners all representing some type of minority), still, it’s nothing like the kind of divisions found in the larger nineteenth-century world. There is one moment where Ishmael says something like the Americans provide the brains while the rest of the world provides the brawn. This is a bit ethnocentric, but Ishmael seems to believe it’s a natural sort of arrangement, one which works for everyone (and, indeed, it does laud the non-Americans, as it is praising physical strength and mental ability in equal measure).
Of course, it’s probably true that a whaling crew, making a three-year voyage, must necessarily be cohesive and cordial, but the narrator’s description of it, so far, doesn’t make it seem as if there’s an effort being made in this regard; it’s just an entirely different kind of existence where those things, race and class and whatever else, don’t really matter.
Another thing I find interesting is the specific pairings of mates with their harpooners. Each of the pairs is described, as are each of the individuals within the pairs. I think this is intentional, and not just because Ishmael (and Melville) seems so hell-bent on being as thoroughly detailed as possible. No, there’s something to be said about these relationships, something that, I think reflects again on the larger world. Let’s take a look at the three:
- Starbuck and Queequeg. Starbuck is from New England and Queequeg is from a “south sea island” (where he was a prince, in fact). We know that at this time the New Englanders relied heavily on trade with China and the South Seas.
- Stubb and Tashtego. Stubb is from Cape Cod but represents the American West. Tashtego is a Native American. We know that colonial and early American expansion and “taming” of the western frontier brought the Native American population (then, “Indians”) to its knees.
- Flask and Daggoo. Flask is from Martha’s Vineyard and best represents the American south. Daggoo is an African-American. The relationship here is probably quite clear.
Although these pairs seem to relate to cultural relationships in the larger world, on the Pequod they seem less oppressive, almost as if Ishmael wants us to see that these pairs, typically at odds, can coexist and work very well together, given the right circumstances. It’s another example of what I talked about in the first post, about the substance of man being more than just his external appearance. Equality and egalitarian existence seem to be primary, likely permanent, themes.
One other thing I’m noticing (or being reminded of, I should say), is the bizarre narrative style. This is also something I mentioned last week – Melville’s experimentation with form. So far, we’ve seen traditional first-person and third-person narrative moments, but also, now, character sketches, interesting rhetorical exercises (like the chapter on Cetology and those presented in dramatic form – which will become even more apparent in Chapter 40), and the many digressive chapters. This may be one of the things that Melville’s contemporary audience did not appreciate, but the Modernists who would come not long after Melville must have (if they knew about the book) seen as groundbreaking.
There are so many things to say about Chapter 32 (“Cetology”). I think Melville is eerily anticipating the psychoanalysts and sexologists who would become so caught-up with terminology and classifications as a means for deepening and clarifying the human experience. His use of publishing terminology is interesting and parallels his Shakespearean allusions quite nicely, too. This is taken up again with the character Ahab, who, in his madness and metaphysical quest, resembles Hamlet, on the one hand, and in his rejection of morality and his manipulation of his crew, resembles Iago, on the other. He is hero and villain in one. His soliloquy demonstrates his great intelligence and philosophical nature, and helps the reader to understand that his quest is not just one of vengeance for having lost his leg, but instead it is an attempt to strike at a larger malevolent agency. Is this malevolent agency God, or something else? There certainly seems to be a hint of determinism in his speech:
Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? Ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! Man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle on the iron way! (183)
Phrases such as “fixed purpose”, and “iron rails”, and “unerringly I rush” all point at a philosophy of predestination, a defiant yet fatalistic view that further informs us as to Ahab’s character. He believes that he has no control over his behavior or his destiny. This speech is meant to inspire his crew – there’s a great adventure ahead! But it should be disturbing, too, as Ahab seems willing and eager to sail right into death’s maw, should that be his path, and to hell with his crew; they are simply there to steer wherever his “soul is grooved to run.”
I think the allusions to Shakespeare, both in style and form, and in character representation, does a few things. It places Melville’s work into that literary, canonical conversation, something he was very concerned with. It also heightens the drama and tension, and it helps to establish individual characters with their motivations.
Quotes to Think About:
- “Don’t whale it too much a’ Lord’s days, men; but don’t miss a fair chance either, that’s rejecting Heaven’s good gifts.” (115)
- “Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.” (115)
- “Butchers we are, that is true. But butchers, also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor.” (118)
- “An utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.” (125)
- “Moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face.” (135)
- “For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves more or less paltry and base.” (160)
- “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” (178)
- “They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!” (183)
Possible Discussion Questions:
- So many people who read and dislike Moby-Dick often blame the digressions. But how are the digressions (chapters like “Cetology”) informing or commenting on the main narrative? Why do you think Melville included them? (We may have more to say about this nearer to the end of the book).
- What do we think of Ishmael as narrator, so far? Reliable? Unreliable? What are his intentions?
- Diversity is clearly playing a role in the narrative so far – what are your thoughts about how Melville (or Ishmael, to stay within the fictive world) treats diversity, and why do you think it is presented this way?