Hosted by Brona of Brona’s Books, the Moby Dick readalong will go at a slow reading pace taking us from August 1st until February 2020 to finish. She has included pertinent introductory and other supplementary materials to add to the experience. This book is one of my big-fear books, so reading with others should lessen that fear!
I’ll make notes here as a sort of diary of thoughts on the story with quotations that struck me. My edition is a Bantam Classic published in 1986.
Aug. 1-4 Extracts Chaps 1 & 2
Excerpts Melville begins with a curious collection of quotations about whales from sources as various as the Bible, philosophy, poetry and history. It is a very curious, but interesting collection. Some of my favorites:
- “Spain–a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe.”
Edmund Burke. (somewhere)
- “In the year 1690 some persons were on a high hill observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed; there–pointing to the sea–is a green pasture where out children’s grand-children will go for bread.”
Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket
- “I built a cottage for Susan and myself and made a gateway in the form of a Gothic Arch, by setting up a whale’s jaw bones.”
Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales
- Suddenly a mighty mass emerged from the water, and shot up perpendicularly into the air. It was the whale.”
Miriam Coffin or the Whale Fisherman
Ch 1. Looming
I liked this opening chapter where he lays out his reasons for wanting to go to sea in general and to whaling in particular and the difference between those people who go as passengers and those go as sailors. His style is descriptive, but straightforward and engaging at least as I can tell from the first bits I’ve read.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouse, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sear as soon as I can.” 11
Ch 2. The Carpet Bag
Ishmael sets off on foot for Nantucket from Manhattan. I like the history he throws in; the importance of the Nantucket whaling tradition and that he wants to sail on a “Nantucket craft because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famousold island….”16 He has to wait a day and a half to get on board, so he needs accommodation for the night. He doesn’t have much money, so he can’t be “too particular.”Mistaking an open door for an inn, he stumbles into a black church with a preacher spouting “the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.”18 I loved that image as a metaphor for his adventure.
Aug. 5-11 Chaps 3-7
Ch. 3 The Spouter Inn
Some of the best writing so far for me is Ismael’s description as he tries to understand that painting at the entrance. It reminds me of friends when they try to explain a modern art painting and I have to do mental gymnastics to figure out what they see that I can’t!
Ch. 4 The Counterpane
We meet Queequeg! And discover you can use the harpoon you kill whales with as your face razor. Yikes!
Ch. 5 Breakfast
Well, you can also use the harpoon for a long knife when you have to reach beefsteaks way on the other side of the table!
Ch. 6 The Street
I enjoyed Ishmael’s descriptions of the various people who congregate in New Bedford, those who live there and those going awhalin’. A very perceptive list of people: Feegeeans, Tongatabooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians. “…actual cannibals stand chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh.” And then there are the Vermonters and New Hampshire men “all thirst for gain and glory in the fishery.”
And there are the rich, the patricians who live there in big houses, whose money comes from the sea trade. Fathers five whales as dowries to their daughters and to their nieces, porpoises.
Ch 7. The Chapel
Melville describes a Sunday service at the Whaleman’s Chapel and the people in the congregation–men about to set sail, the wives of those already at sea and widows of those who died there. Along the wall are marble tablets memorializing sailors lost at sea. One in particular:
to the Memory
ROBERT LONG, WILLIS ELLERY,
NATHAN COLEMAN, WALTER CANNY, SETH MACY,
AND SAMUEL GLEIG,
Forming one of the boats’ crews
The Ship Eliza,
Who were towed out of sight by a Whale,
On the Off-shore Ground in the
December 31st, 1839
Is here place by their surving
Just trying to wrap my head around a crew watching their shipmates pulled away from them by a whale and being helpless to do anything about it.
And these tablets are not like graves in the grass, where loved ones know their kin’s body is there for the resurrection. Here are just words: “What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions!….What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.” In this chapter, Melville talks about death in general in this line of work and how he feels about his own death. “Take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.”
Ch. 8 The Pulpit
When Father Mapple, the chaplain enters and goes to the pulpit, he does a curious thing: once he goes up the ladder to the high pulpit he pulls it up, so no one can get to him, but why would they he wonders? “…it must symbolize something unseen. Can it be, then, that by that act of physical isolation, he signifies his spiritual withdrawal for the time, from all outward worldly ties and connextions?”
Ch. 9 The Sermon
Father Mapple begins his sermon and the message is from Jonah. Jonah is on the run from some “wilful disobedience from the command of God” and finds a ship to take him away. But a terrible storm arises and he believes he is the cause. He asks the crew to throw him over, and he is dropped into the sea where he is swallowed by a whale.
But he doesn’t beseech God for deliverance, because he thinks this punishment just and so he repents. “And here Shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place him before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”
But at the end of the sermon, we realize that as instructive as this message may be for the congregation, er, Shipmates, it is really for Father Mapple. After Jonah was spit out he preached “the Truth to the face of Falsehood!” “This Shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who sights it.”
Ch. 10 A Bosom Friend
Ishmael returns to the Spouter Inn after chapel and finds Queequeg by himself counting pages in a big book. He speculates somewhat about him, “You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I though I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.” He thought his head in his baldness resembled George Washington, “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed. Having never been close to “heathens” Ishmael is breaking though the stereotypes and feels himself soften against the anger he’s been fleeing about his life. “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.”
Back in their room Queequeg is practicing his nightly prayers and worshiping his little idol and seems to want Ishmael to join him, and Ishmael thinks about this as a Christian and if it would be right to do. “But what is worship?–to do the will of God–that is worship. And what is the will of God?–to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me–that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish this this Queequeg would do to me? Why unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must unite with him in his….”
I would be interested to know how this passage and the one where they put their foreheads together as bosom friends, was received by the public at the time of publication.
Ch. 11 Nightgown
The pair settle down to sleep, but find themselves “chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine….”
And where Ishmael objected to Queequeg’s smoking the night before he isn’t bothered by it any longer. “…yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them.”….I was only alive to the condensed confidential comfortableness of sharing a pipe and a blanket with a real friend.”
Ch. 12 Biography
Ishamel gives background on Queequeg and we learn he is the son of a King and nephew of a High Priest. He saw ships come to his island and wanted to see “Christendom.” He was refused passage, so he waited until a ship was at sea and climbed up onto the deck and was allowed to stay. But what he saw, the drinking the womanizing…”Poor Queequeg gave it up for lost. Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a Pagan.” He is now afraid that he is too tainted to ascend to the throne of his people. So the two decide to stay together through out their whaling voyages and through “the same mess with me, in short to share my every hap; with both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.”
The affection they show to each other is unexpected to me between men. It’s something women of this time would do; basically pledging their lives to one another. “With both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.”
Ch. 13 Wheelbarrow
Ishmael and Queequeg pack up their gear and make their way down to the wharf to board a ship that will take them to their whaling boat. People stare at them, not because Q is a cannibal, but because the two of them are on “such confidential terms.” Q is carrying his harpoon, because he trusts it even though there will be plenty on the ship. And Ishmael compares it to day laborers who go to farms and bring their own scythes for the same reason. This is not the first time Melville tries to compare what Q does with what a modern person would do as if he is trying to make him not the same exactly, but remove the ‘Other’ aspect about him.
The incident when Queegueg picks up the boy who mocked him then saves his life. In this incident Queequeg shows his worth to the captain, but also that he is one of them, a team player. Queegueg probably sees it another way because he thinks, “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.” 🙂