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 strike 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 Ishmael 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 who go as sailors. His style is descriptive, but straightforward and engaging at least as far 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 warehouses, 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 sea as soon as I can.”
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 famous old 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.” I loved that image as a metaphor for his adventure.
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 use to kill whales with as well as use it as your face razor. Yikes!
Ch. 5 Breakfast
Well, you can also use the harpoon for a long knife when you need to stab 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 give 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.”
Ch. 45 The Affidavit
We learn about the physical characteristics of some of the well-known whales that allow whalers to identify these infamous whales. Also, some whales live for years with harpoons lodged in their bodies and when they die or are killed these harpoons can identify the harpooner because of the mark they have engraved. We learn the names of the four well-known whales Cambyses or Caesar, Tim or Tom, New Zealand Jack, Morquan King of Japan.
Melville talks at length about landsmen, who know nothing about whales or whaling who base their knowledge on stories believe Moby Dick as a fable or an allegory. So he makes mention of the several instances of the reality of the beasts and the documented deaths and ship wrecks they responsible for.
“The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stable in utterly destroy and sink a large ship; and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it.”
Ch. 46 Surmises
Ahab has to keep his obsession with Moby Dick on the down low, because Starbuck disagrees and could rebel with the rest of the crew over it. When he revealed the real purpose of the Pequod’s voyage he opened himself up to usurpation from the crew and they could with moral and legal authority refuse all obedience to him “and even violently wrest from him the command.”
Ch. 47 The Mat-Maker
This chapter once again shows the beautifully crafted writing style of Melville as he compares Queequeg’s repairing of the sword-mat. As Queequeg’s weaves the yarn with his sword and Ishmael taking the shuttle “it seemed as if this were the Loom of time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates….This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads.
Ch. 48 The First Lowering
“There she blows!” From the last chapter Tashtego is watching high in the cross-trees and he spots a Sperm Whale. Ismael tells us, “The Sperm Whale blows as a clock ticks, with the same undeviating and reliable uniformity. And thereby whalemen distinguish this fish from other tribes of his genus.”
From out of nowhere 5 “phantoms” are doing Ahab’s bidding regarding this whale and the crew’s surprise must not let this bother their responsibilities. Boats are lowered and the chase is on. “Not the raw recruit;…not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world; neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.”
Ch. 49 The Hyena
The capriciousness of whaling life causes whalemen to obsess over their wills, which Ishmael just discovered. “It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion.” Ishmael feels better after amending his. ” Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock here goes for a cool, collected five at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”
Ch. 50 Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah
There is a general sensibility that the captain of a ship should not be involved in the thick of a whale chase, due to his position and responsibility for his men. And with Ahab’s bad leg it is even more so. Yet, in plain sight, he made preparations for his special boat and even spoke aloud that the real mission of the voyage was to catch a particular white whale. Now, after the first chase, it is inevitable that Ahab, even with his disability, plans to be in the thick of it. And in particular, the hiring on “the phantoms” there is no doubt about it.
These new crew members soon integrated into the crew without more ado, because it is not that uncommon for strangers to come out from the nooks and crannies of the ship at one time or another “and the ships themselves often pick up such queer castaway creatures found tossing about the open sea on planks, bits of wreck, oars, whale-boats, canoes, blown-off Japanese junks, and what not; Beelzebub himself might climb up the side and step down into the cabin to chat with the Captain and it would not create any unsubduable excitement in the forecastle.”
Ch. 51 The Spirit-Spout
One night a spout is seen and for several nights in a row. Some in the crew are convinced it is Moby Dick. But night is a not a good time for chasing a whale.
Ch. 58 Brit
He describes brit, “the minute yellow substance, upon which the right-whale largely feeds.” I wonder if this is like plankton, but it is yellow?
Then he muses on the sea and what is hidden down under the surface and its opposite, the “green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insulare Tahiti, full of peace and joy but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push no off from that isle, thou canst never return!”
Ch. 59 Squid
The great live squid is seen by Daggo who mistakes it for a white while. It is so rarely seen that whalers see it as a portent. It is also thought to be what sperm whales eat since it is unclear what they really eat.
Ch. 60 The Line
Now we learn about line, the hemp rope, now the Manilla rope is used in the American fishery. This is aesthetically more pleasing in color and looks better on the boat than the hemp line. And the perils of coiled lines and the pulling off of limbs as they uncoil. “Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for those repeated whaling disasters…of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost.”
He describes the profound calm which precedes the storm…the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play–this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair…All men live enveloped in whale-=lines. All are born with alters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, every-present perils of life.”
61. Stubb Kills a Whale
Speaking of squid, we learn that for Queequeg it means sperm whales are not far behind. And sure enough, there she blows. And we read about the first killing of a whale by the Pequod’s crew.
62. The Dart
Ishmael describes the method of the harpooner-oar, that he is the first to dart the whale and the complicated manner in which he has to maneuver his harpoon, the oar, the yelling and the boat at the same time. Out of 50 chances to dart a whale only 5 are successful, some “burst their blood-vessels in the boat…no wonder that to many ship owners, whaling is but a losing concern; for it is the harpooneer that makes the voyage, and if you take the breath out of his body how can you expect to find it there when most wanted!
Once the whale is successfully darted the chase begins, but Ishmael takes exception of the methods that come next. The harpooneer is exhausted from rowing then has to harpoon. “To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.”
63. The Crotch
This is a “notched stick of a peculiar form, some two feet in length, which is perpendicualarly inserted into the starboard gunwale near the bow, for the purpose of furnishing a rest for the wooden extremity of the harpoon.” The barbed end sticks out of the prow. Two rest in the crotch, called the first and second irons. They are also connected to the lind (see chapter 60).
If the first iron is thrown at the whale, the second must be thrown also, whether at the whale or just thrown into the water, as both are attached to the line. The second iron flails about the water and against the boat and whale. It is not possible to secure it until the whale is dead. Ishmael describes a scene in which four boats are all after a whale and the accidents that happen when several of these second irons run amuck.
Ch. 64 Stubb’s Supper
The crew drags the dead whale through the water toward the Pequod. Ahab is described as dissatisfied and impatient because he is reminded that Moby Dick is still out there. The whale is tied to the boat “head to the stern, and by the tail to the bows.” Stubb rewards himself with a steak from his whale. We learn that sharks often come by to feast on the whale so tied up and that they are often like dogs hounding a ship for scraps of food, even humans who are thrown over to be buried at sea.
The sharks are making a lot of noise as they feast, hitting the boat with their tales, so Stubbs tells Fleece, the black cook to go out there and preach to the ‘congregation’ that they may eat, but to please be quiet about it. But the cook keeps swearing at them in his ‘sermon’ and Stubb keeps telling him you can’t swear when you’re preaching. It’s a very funny exchange!
And finally Stubb goodnaturedly castigates Fleece on his terrible cooking of the whale steak and how to do it better.
Ch. 65 The Whale as a Dish
“That mortal man should feed upon the creature that feeds his lamp, and, like Stubb, eat him by his own light,…this seems so outlandish a thing…”
This chapter describes good cuts of whale and porpoise sauce and also the fame of flesh made into balls, the eating of blubber and frying scraps smell something like, ” ol Amsterdam house-wives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks, when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.”
For Ishmael, though whale too rich. “He is the great prize ox of the sea, too fat to be delicately good.” But some whalemen can make the fattiness work as a frying liquid for biscuits. “Many a good supper have I thus made.” He discusses then, the brains of small sperm whales as a “fine dish.”
Ishmael now calls hypocrisy any landman who criticizes Stubb for eating whale by the light of whale oil by calling into question our eating of meat and and using the bones of the ox as an eating utensil; or picking your teeth after eating goose with a goose feather. Hmm. This, I like.
Ch. The Shark Massacre
When whales are killed and lashed to the ship in the dark, it is too laborious to begin the cutting up process and is done the next day. However, this is the time of swarms of sharks and as described above would result in a whale carcass as the day dawns. So we learn how Queequeg stabs and kills the multitude of sharks trying to devour Stubb’s whale.
Ch. 67 Cutting In
Describing the cutting up of a whale.
Ch. 68 The Blanket
He describes whale skin as a ‘thin, transparent substance’ resembling isinglass. Dried it becomes hard and brittle, which bits Ishmael uses as bookmarks.
A very large sperm whale can yield 100 barrels of oil. He describes the criss-crossed marks on the whale’s skin like heiroglyphics on the walls of pyramids. The blubber allows the whale to survive in all climates. And what can we learn from this?
“Oh man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep they blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”
Ch. The Funeral
Once the body of the whale is cut up and the blubber and skin is taken the whale is released from the boat.
“There’s a most doleful and most mocking funerals! The sea-vultures all in pious mourning, the air-sharks all punctiliously in black or speckled. In life but few of them would have helped the whale…but upon the banquet of his funeral they most pious do pounce. Oh, horrible vultureism of earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free.”
As the desecrated body floats into the distance a “vengeful” ghost hovers “to scare.” The body meets its last resting place on something solid, like the shore or shoals or rocks the bones exposed. And ships will shun the place. “Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his fores, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.”
Ch. 70 The Sphynx
When the whale is cut loose from the boat, he has been decapitated and here Ishmael describes that procedure. Cutting into the flesh inches deep, dividing the spine from the from the skull from a position above is a skill that Stubb boasts about being about being able to accomplish in 10 minutes.
Hanging away from the side of the boat “it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert, “speak thou vast and venerable head,’ muttered Ahab, ‘…speak mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee’ and Ahab pleads with the head, which when alive knew the secrets of the universe to impart that on him.
Ch. 71 The Jeroboam’s Story
First we hear about the individual signal that every whaling boat is assigned that each captain keeps in a book. The Pequod sees a boat in the distance and by its signal the crew knows it to be the Jeroboam of Nantucket. The boat caught up to the Pequod and the captain of the ship told the Pequod there was illness aboard and didn’t want to infect them. Though their conversation was difficult in the choppy water they were able to exchange information.
But Stubb noticed an oarsman whom he had heard about and told this strange story. He was a prophet in the Shakers sect and at meetings used to ‘come down from Heaven’ via a trap door. But he was hired on as a crew member of the Jeroboam. As soon as the boat was out of sight of land, this man announced he was the archangel Gabriel and commanded the captain to jump overboard, as he was now in control as the “deliverer of the isles of the sea and vicar general of all Oceanica.” Some of the ignorant crew believed him and the captain hoped to leave him at the first convenient port. ‘Gabriel’ had drugs with him which he used on the crew and combined with his persuasive speech “he did work upon his disciples among the crew, that at last in a body they went to the Captain and told him if Gabriel was sent from the ship, not a man of them would remain.” They objected to any maltreatment of him so that Gabriel had run of the ship. The plague he told them was his doing that he could start and stop as he pleased. The ignorant among the crew, who believed in him treated him like a god. But Ahab, though being warned by Gabriel of the fevers and bile of the infection, didn’t believe him and asked Captain Mayhew aboard. When Gabriel saw the whale head beating wildly against the ship he eyed it “with rather more apprehensiveness than his archangel nature seemed to warrant.”
Then Ahab asked the captain if he had seen Moby Dick, but Gabriel responded that the the White Whale was was the Shaker God incarnated. And when the Jeroboam spotted it and went to catch him the chief mate was killed by it. And of course this accident “clothed the archangel with added influence; because this credulous disciples believed that he had specifically fore-announced it.”
Then the conversation turns to mail. It is interesting to me that when a whaling ship leaves a port it takes a number of letters addressed to the crew of the great many ships out at sea and “whose delivery to the persons to whom they may be addressed, depends upon the mere chance of encountering them in the four oceans. Thus, most letters never reach their mark; and many are only received after attaining an age of two or three years or more.” Ahab remembered there was a letter for someone on the Jeroboam and Starbuck went to fetch it. It was addressed to Macy, the chief mate who drowned and Gabriel said to Ahab to keep the letter, because that will be your fate. As Ahab sent the letter to the other boat Gabriel caught it and sent it back where it landed at Ahab’s feet. Gabriel commanded the crew to get away from the Pequod. And “many strange things were hinted in reference to this wild affair.”
I AM WAAAAY BEHIND AND WILL SPEND THE NEXT WEEK CATCHING UP. I don’t think I will catch up here, though. I will continue with recaps when I’m caught up.
Ch. 87 The Grand Armada
…the whale ship, in all that interval, may not have sighted one grain of soil; her crew having seen no man but floating seamen like themselves. So that did you carry them the news that another flood had come; they would only answer – ‘Well, boys, here’s the ark!’
Ishmael talks about the sperm whale being over hunted, because in the past they traveled in small “communities,” but are now traveling in larger groups “that it would almost seem as if numerous nations of them had sworn solemn league and convenant for mutual assistance and protection.”
Ch. 88 Schools and Schoolmasters
Ishmael compares the schools of female whales as a “harem” presided over by an “Ottoman.” And also like the ‘fashionables,’ the upper class people of his day who, “are forever on the move in leisurely search of variety.”
There are also communities of young male whales that Ishmael describes “as a mob of young collegians, they are full of fight, fun and wickedness, tumbling round the world at such a reckless, rollicking rate…. They soon relinquish this turbulence though, and when about three fourths grown, break up, and separately go about in quest of settlements, that is, harems.”
And here is the difference between the male and female schools. “Say you strike a forty-barrel-bull – poor devil! all his comrades quit him. But strike a member of the harem school, and her companions swim around her with every token of concern, sometimes lingering so near her and so long, as themselves to fall a prey.”
Ch. 89 Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
We are introduced to the concept of loose-fish and fast-fish. A fast-fish is one attached to a boat; a loose-fish is one that has gotten loose and may be claimed by another boat, even though the fist boat caught it and could be in the middle of cutting it up. These definitions had to be developed when in the open sea it sometimes occurs that a whale caught by boat A somehow loosens itself away from it, maybe by storm for example. If there are other boats nearby and they see a dead whale even though originally captured by someone else, it is fair game for any boat, once loose.
And then Melville being Melville philosophizes about this concept and compares it to humans; to Russian serfs and slaves who are fast-fish to those who own them, because possession is not “half of the law’ but the whole law.
“What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress?”
“What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loos-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish?…What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?”
Ch. 90 Heads or Tails
In English law we learn that any whale captured on the coast of England, the whalers must give the head to the King and the tail to the Queen, robbing the men who actually caught it of their portion of the catch, or the money for it. It was thought that in the tail was the bone that was used in women’s bodices, however, it was mistakenly thought so, as that bone is the head. “But is the Queen a mermaid, to be presented with a tail? An allegorical meaning may lurk there.”
The sturgeon is also royal property and with the whale,”supplying a tenth branch of the crown’s ordinary revenue. I know that not any other author has hinted of the matter; but by inference it seems to me that the sturgeon must be divided in the same way as the whale, the King receiving the highly dense and elastic head peculiar to the that fish, which, symbolically regarded, may possible be humorously grounded upon some presumed congeniality. And thus there seems a reason in all things, even in law.”
Ch. 92 Ambergis
The Pequod meets a French whaler and along side it is a stinky whale. But Stubb poked it enough to find this substance, a soft, way, and so highly fragrant and spicy substance used in perfume, in pastiles, candles, hair powders and pomatum. “The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St Peter’s in Rome. Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.
Ch. 93 The Castaway
The person of Pippin, the African American. He did not have a good go of it in the boat chasing a whale when he got caught in the line it had to be cut, allowing the whale to get away. Stubb was mad, but then gave him this advice: Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but in cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. Er…Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that. And poor Pip, it happened again and though he didn’t get tangled up again, it too a long time for him to be rescued, so much so that he was never the same in the head.
Ch. 94 The Squeeze of the Hand
Yuck. The inestimable joy of keeping sperm in liquid form by squeezing the congealed blobs. “In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” Just, NO.
And also a description of the other kinds of secretions taken from whales like white horse, plum pudding slobgollion, gurry, nippers. Pretty disgusting and no Ishmael I will not “descend in the blubber-room, and have a long talk with its inmates” to understand it all.
Ch. 96 The Try Works
Or the melting of the blubber and those of the crew tasked to it. “Their tawny features, now all begrimmed with smoke and sweat, their matter beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, the tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards our of them…” And Ishmael briefly hallucinating while on watch by the fire almost capsizing the ship.