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.” 🙂
Ch. 14 Nantucket
The pair are in Nantucket and Ismael is describing the town in a very beautiful descriptive way. I wonder if the modern Nanctucket plays this up. As a West Coaster, Nanctucket is like an icon to New England fishing towns. Also, in this chapter, Melville shows off once again his knowledge of history and historical legend. I mean this as a compliment!
“…two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it.”
Ch. 15 Chowder
Ishmael and Queequeg have been given the name of Peter Coffin’s cousin’s inn and they go to find it. The Try-Pot is owned by Hosea Hussey and his wife. When the two arrive hungry, they are served chowder both clam and cod and is comforting on so cold and wet a day. A chowder for all meals all day.
“…till you begin to look for fishbones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clamshells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish vertebra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books bound in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor of the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen’s boats, I saw Hosea’s brindled cow feeding on fish remnants,….”
Ch. 16 The Ship
Yojo is the name of Queequeg’s little statue and he has decided that Ishmael should be the one to choose the ship and go out alone. And as it’s “Lent, Ramadan or day of fasting, humiation, and prayer” or something, Queegueg stayes in their room. Ishmael goes to the ships and sees three likely candidates and chooses the Pequod to inquire about. The ship is old, but decorated. “Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled like the pilgrim-worshipped flagstone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled.”–That is the weirdest smilie, and does not sound good for a ship about to set out!
He finds that the boat is owned by Captains Peleg and Bildad retired whalers, and goes into detail about them being Quaker. Quakers settled Nantucket and most inhabitants are Quaker. Bildad is the most pious of the two and though he no longer goes a whaling, his lance drew the most gore out of whales, even though he’s against human bloodshed. He reads his Bible now and leaves the ship activities including signing up new crew members to Peleg, who tries at first to put the fear of whaling in Ishmael. But Ishmael signs up and after hears about the actual captain of the ship Ahab, who we learn recently lost a leg to a whale, is married and has a child. Ishmael feels a certain mystery about him, a kind of awe.
Ch. 17 and 18 The Ramadan, His Mark
Ismael leaves the room in the morning because Queequeg is observing some rite or ritual and is reflecting on different religious beliefs. He thinks we all need to be charitable about others’ “and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to the other mortals, pagans and what not…” Basically, everyone thinks they’re right. “Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” But when he returns Queequeg won’t open the door and he’s concerned. The landlady has a key and upon opening it they find Queequeg on the floor stock still with Yojo on the top of his head a position he stays in until the first light of day. Then he’s up and the pair go to the Pequod to sign up Queequeg. Upon seeing them, however Captain Peleg will not allow him on board unless he has been baptized a Christian. Ishmael says he is a member of the First Congregational Church to which Capt. Bildad dismisses.
“I mean sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshiping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets noways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.”
Queequeg then goes on to prove his worth as a whaling man by skillfully pointing out a spot in the water and throwing his harpoon to the exact spot. Thereby, he is awarded a ninetieth lay, the largest ever given to a harpooner out of Nantucket.
Ch. 19 The Prophet
A mysterious stranger questions Ishmael and Queequeg as they are walking away from the Pequod asking them if they know the full story of Ahab. Ismael challenges him, because he doesn’t like being questioned. However, he is a little uncomfortable, but thinks he’s just a humbug and lets it go.
Ch. 20 All Astir
But now, all the preparations for the 3-year voyage are in full swing. We learn how much gear is needed for a trip like this, not only the food, equipment and tools themselves, but their spares. Bildad’s sister Charity, Aunt Charity all the crew calls her is over seeing much of the preparations and is seen as a comforter. However, Ahab still has not shown up bringing Ishmael’s uneasiness come to the surface. The captain of a whaling vessel is the “absolute dictator” and Ishmael is aware he is somewhat questioning his commitment. But “it sometimes happens [to a man] that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing and tired to think nothing.”
Ch. 21 Going Abroad
Ishmael and Queequeg go to the Pequod believing she is about to set sail and are accosted by Elijah, who again is full of warnings or just plain mystery. Here is another instance where I would think this is a bad omen and abandon ship before I even got on ship. “Come on, Ishmael,” I would say, “the warnings and omens come from a man named after a prophet. Heed him!”
When they arrive on ship, they only find one crew member who is fast asleep. Queequeg feels his butt and sits on him to the horrified Ishmael who tells him to get off, “you are heavy, you are grinding the face of the poor.” Q. proceeds to explain that in his country they buy up some “lazy fellows,” fatten them up strew them around the house and use them as ottomans. Is this humor or reality? Sadly, I can believe it is real somewhere.
Ch. 22 Merry Christmas
The Pequod sets sail with Starbuck as First Mate, yet Capt. Ahab is still yet to be seen. Bildad gives final orders and prayers. He and Peleg leave the boat and the sea adventure begins. “We gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.”
Ch. 23 The Lee Shore
Frankly, this Bulkington person in the brief chapter is unintelligible to me. But I love this sentence early on in it describing the Pequod setting off: “When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves….” How can a ship have vindictive bows and why are the waves malicious? It does not bode well for this this journey!
Ch. 26 Knights and Squires
This has to be one of the most beautifully written chapters so far. Melville describes Starbuck, the chief mate and beautifully discusses the divine dignity of humankind.
Starbuck is a native from Nantucket, is 30 years old, a Quaker with a wife and child and has long been a whaler. He is lean and healthy. He is conscientious, steadfast, but “the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition;…”but from intelligence than from ignorance.”
With all his experience, though he was not a daredevil and does not want that in others. “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale.”
“Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him….I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs….” We learn both his father and brother were killed while whaling.
About humankind, in general man may seem detestable, knaves, fools, murderers, “but man in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature….this august dignity…is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shall see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God….”
I love the above. It reminds me of Walt Whitman.
Ch. 27 Knights and Squire (continued)
The other two Shipmates are described. Stubb, the Second Mate is a “Cape-Cod Man.” Happy go-lucky, easy-going, easy and good humored. “He presided over his whale boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner and his crew all invited guests.” Did he think about death? He “took it to be a sort of call of the watch to tumble aloft,…which eh would find out when he obeyed eh order, and not sooner.” His comfort on the voyage was his pipe. His pipes were ready loaded in a row and “was one of the regular features of his face.”
Flask the Third Mate, from Martha’s Vineyard. Pugnacious concerning whales, “who personally and hereditarily affronted him…and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them….”To him whales were mice and water-rats requiring little effort to kill and boil.
The three Mates are likened to Gothic Knights of old, who have their squires, in this case harpooners, beside them at all times. Starbuck had chosen Queequeg, Stubb chose Tastego an Indian from Gay Head and Flask, Daggoo, a black native of Africa.
Ch. 28 Ahab (described and wondered about)
For several days after setting out Ahab is yet to be seen and Ishmael feels “vague disquietude.” And he remembers the words of warning of Elijah.
Language I like, “The ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy.” There have been other descriptions like this that give the feeling the Pequod is alive with feelings.
We learn about Ahab’s scar/brand/birthmark; that it goes down his face into his shirt, but no one knows how long it is or when/how he got it.
Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s every-pitching prow. “…But moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.”
Ch. 29 Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb
Ahab still isn’t speaking to anyone except the three mates. He spends more time out of his cabin than in at this point. He walks the planks during the day, but is stays still at night, because of the noise his peg-leg makes. Stubb, gives him advice on how to muffle the sound which enrages Ahab, who verbally beats him. Stubb is stunned and has a hard time letting it go. He is not used to be talked to that way and wants some kind of revenge.
Ch. 30 The Pipe
Ahab sitting on his stool, a tripod of bones, “…A Kahn of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.”
As he sits he is dissatisfied with his pipe, because it doesn’t soothe him anymore. He tosses it into the sea.
Ch. 31 Queen Mab
Second Mate Stubbs has a very vivid dream resulting from his altercation with Captain Ahab. In it he is kicking Ahabs chair and Ahab is kicking him back with his peg leg. He is told to think of this as an honor just like lords of the past who were slapped by their queen. It’s a resolution for him. “Well the best thing you can do is to let that old man alone; never speak to him, whatever he says.”
He sees Ahab who is looking out at sea and sees whales around and yells to his crew, “If you see a white one, split your lungs for him.” Odd, thinks Stubb.
Ch. 32 Queen Mab
Oh my…want to know EVERYthing about whales (that is known at this time)? Want to know who the writers and what the literature is and the scientists and biologists who have written about them? Need an outline of the names of all the known whales, their description, and what they’re hunted for? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this is the chapter for you! Yikes, I think I would do very well on a cetology exam after reading this chapter. Humor aside, it is rather an amazing chapter. Melville certainly did his homework. But I feel like there is something else. Why does he want his readers to know so much about all the different whales? He goes to such lengths in gathering information of each one.
Ch. 33 The Specksnyder
Ishmael now describes the community on the boat, more of the hierarchy and where they lodge. He explains that centuries ago, the roles of captain of the ship and the harpooners were the heads of the voyage with different duties. The captain was in charge of navigation and everything connected with the boat. The harpooners with the getting the whale, because under them, “the success of the voyage largely depends.”
But these divisions changed and in American ships the Mates, with the Harpooners lodge with the Captain.
I think by the end of the book, I will know more about the historical whaling industry than I’d imagined when I started this book! And honestly, it’s not boring at all.
Ch. 35 The Mast Head
We learn about the position of those on a southern whaling ship whose job it is to man the mast head looking out for the whales. Ishmael describes what it looks like and how time is spent there. “In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedlingly pleasant the masthead;nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts wers gigantic stilts. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled by the waves.”
We also learn about the invention of the crow’s nest, in particular, Sleet’s Crow’s Nest.
Ch. 36 The Quarter-Deck
Ahab gathers the crew together and tells them the first to spot the white whale Moby Dick will get a reward. They pass around a flagon and drink and with their lances and harpoons Ahab creates a ritual around the hunt. Starbuck is not on board with going after the white whale and calls it blasphemous to go after a “dumb thing.” But Ahab is determined this will be the mission of the Pequod, it seems: “Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”
Ch. 37-39 Sunset, Dusk, First Night-Watch
As I read these three short chapters, I couldn’t get over how they felt like monologues in a play. First Ahab is reflecting on his quest for the whale, “I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Next Starbuck ponders what Ahab wants them to do and and he’s of two minds about it. “I plainly see my miserable office–to obey, rebelling; and worse yet to hate with a touch of pity!. Then Stubbs, who is mending some equipment is laughing at the situation with Ahab, Starbuck and the whale, “because a laughs the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always left–…it’s all predestinated.
As I read these chapters I was immediately struck by their sounding like monologues in a play. I could plainly see a stage and the scenes they were set in. Lo and behold the next chapter is in fact, a play!
Ch. 40 Midnight Forecastle
The Pequod is getting closer to finding whales and the crew is carrying on singing, while they work at what is to come. Melville has stage directions and character motivations mapping out the character and the part of the world he is from. A play within a novel. Melville, a man of many genres!
Ahab is certifiably nuts and should not be captaining a whaling ship with such unbridled revenge in his heart. “Ah God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”