OKAY. Time to crack open this CLASSIC MASTERPIECE. My Norton Critical Edition has taken up long-term residence on my nightstand and I am PUMPED to set sail on this LITERARY VOYAGE. HERE WE FUCKING GO.
(These notes are essentially just me recapping Moby-Dick for my own benefit as I read it very slowly and deliberately over the course of what has turned out to be several years. It’s all shots from the hip. First impressions. If you are reading it, know that it is barely meant to be read. Nevertheless, I edited it lightly circa 2021 to tamp down a certain… excess of style. Somewhat unsuccessfully.)
Etymology and extracts
So I feel like this introductory quasi-chapter probably has a lot to say about what kind of book this is going to be. Most novels start with one or two epigraphs that are relevant to the story or themes. If you’re Steven King, maybe you’ll indulge yourself and stretch it out to five or six. Moby-Dick starts with A WHOLE CHAPTER OF EPIGRAPHS. There are EIGHTY of them.
Also, most authors present their epigraphs without comment. They just put them there in the middle of an austere, mostly empty page. NOT HERMAN MELVILLE. This guy’s got to make-believe like he got his etymology of the word “whale” from a schoolmaster who died of tuberculosis (“a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”) and his cavalcade of epigraphs from a vanishingly minor drone at a public library (“a Sub-Sub Librarian”).
It’s important to note that neither of these people are real. Melville definitely did all of this himself. We haven’t even properly started the book yet and Melville is already trolling us.
Still, the epigraphs are an amazing accomplishment. Imagine trying to find eighty resonant extracts about whales in texts ranging from Shakespeare to ship’s logs — without the help of the internet. Melville has really gone the extra thousand nautical miles, here. I assume this will become a trend. We’re not just dealing with a storyteller, here. We’re dealing with a person who Knows Stuff and has Read Things and Really Could Go On For A While. Moby-Dick couldn’t have happened without the depth of research that’s indicated by this bewildering introduction.
So: let’s take stock, quickly. We’re ten pages in and we’ve already witnessed a gratuitous display of erudition, nested in a weird structure game where you can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.
Chapter 1: Loomings
Reading this chapter made me want to read all of Moby-Dick. Before I picked up the book and read chapter one on a whim, I’d assumed that Moby-Dick was just a super long adventure story about a one-legged obsessive’s insane quest for revenge on a great white whale. I’d assumed it was a banal potboiler with puffed-up literary ambitions. This chapter immediately dispels that notion.
I read this again and again, often out loud, before I managed to move onto the second chapter. I adore this, and I’m going to try and explain why. In the process I’ll hopefully explain briefly what happens in this chapter — which, in a sense is nothing. But in another sense, WOW DOES SHIT GO DOWN.
This chapter introduces us to one of the best narrators in any book ever: Ishmael. I mean, maybe that’s his name. Famously, he tells us to call him that, but the first sentence isn’t “my name is Ishmael.” I dunno why he’d lie, but it’s strange phrasing, isn’t it? “Call me Ishmael.” Why? What else would I call you? Are you fucking with me again, Herman?
Moby-Dick has a reputation for being a bloated, overlong, unnecessarily discursive novel with far too many redundant, superfluous, unnecessary words. Remember, this is the book with eighty epigraphs. But by the end of the first page, you should realize that the book is not like this because of any indiscipline on Melville’s part: it’s like this because Melville has created an extraordinarily rich and idiosyncratic narrator. Ishmael is a genius and a polymath. He is manic. Everything fascinates him, particularly language. He loves language so much that he often gets excited and uses more of it than he needs to. He’s the personification of all the joy there is to be had in observing the world.
He is also traumatized. It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that Moby-Dick does not end happily. (I’m far from finished the book as I write this, but I know the plot from cultural osmosis. I guess most people do.) Ishmael is telling the story in retrospect, some years later. (“Never mind how long precisely.”) I don’t think he emerged from his maritime ordeal unscathed. Look at the way he first brings up the whaling voyage that’ll be the whole subject of the book: “But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage…” That sentence is the turning point of the chapter and the first indication of what the story’s going to be — and it’s just sitting casually in the middle of a paragraph. He basically crab walks his way into the story. I have a personal theory that part of the reason Ishmael beats around the bush so much and talks about pyramids and Niagara Falls and other irrelevant topics is that he’s actively trying to avoid telling the story for as long as possible. Because it is definitely going to be an emotionally taxing story to tell. Moby-Dick is a novel where a storyteller peels off an emotional band-aid as slowly and haltingly as possible.
There are indications that Ishmael had some issues before he ever set foot on the whaling ship that traumatized him. He proclaims, semi-jokingly, within the first few sentences of the book that he likes to go to sea “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.” This is CONCERNING TO SAY THE LEAST. But it is ultimately what pulled me into the novel in the first place. I’m not sure how interested I am in revenge stories, maritime adventure, or obsessive captains. But I’m quite happy to spend a great deal of time with this narrator, no matter how reluctant he is to actually tell the story he’s ostensibly telling.
Still, even though he clearly has some serious baggage related to his time at sea, Ishmael obviously thinks this story is a good one. Look at how his language takes flight at the very end of the chapter, as he’s about to launch into the narrative proper: “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” That gives me chills. And it’s still more effective when you think about how this guy can even conjure up some Wonder At The World’s Miracles when he’s thinking about the worst experience of his whole life. “I am quick to perceive a horror,” Ishmael tells us, “and could still be social with it — would they let me.” Would that we could all be so charitable towards our traumas.
In chapter one, we meet our mysterious, manic, melancholy guide through the tale of Moby-Dick. He tells us essentially no details about the story or about his past life. But he does something much more profound and compelling: he shows us how his mind works. He tells us about why he loves the sea and why he loves being a lowly sailor rather than an officer. He tells us about the doldrums that take hold of him when he lingers too long on land. And, maybe half by accident, he exposes us to the sheer force and charm of his personality and makes us want to pay attention — whether he’s getting on with the story or not.
Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag
Ah, look! We have some honest-to-god story! Things Are Happening! Essentially, the next several chapters detail Ishmael’s wanderings in New Bedford, a whaling town that seems at this point to have superseded Nantucket in its industry prevalence. But Ishmael, being something of a Hipster Whaler, makes a point of expressing his disappointment in this fact. He is headed for Nantucket, thank you very much; nothing but the OG whaling port will do for a man of history such as our narrator. Still, he can’t help but start his narrative long before the action begins. So, we’ll follow him around New Bedford for a few chapters while he waits for something to happen. (Did I say Things Were Happening? I was speaking in the broadest possible terms.)
In chapter two, Ishmael walks through the streets of New Bedford with his weird bag, looking for a decent place to stay. It contains one of my favourite examples of his tendency to use far too many words to get his point across: he means to say “I didn’t have much money, so I needed to find a cheap hotel.” Instead, he says: “With anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket, and only brought up a few pieces of silver,—So, wherever you go, Ishmael, said I to myself, as I stood in the middle of a dreary street shouldering my bag, and comparing the gloom towards the north with the darkness towards the south—wherever in your wisdom you may conclude to lodge for the night, my dear Ishmael, be sure to inquire the price, and don’t be too particular.” Marvelous.
In any case, Ishmael settles on a place called the Spouter-Inn, which will make up the setting and title of the next chapter.
Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn
Our narrator’s account of his arrival and first night at the Spouter-Inn contains a bunch of top-shelf Ishmaelisms about the weird painting by the bar, and one crucial plot element. This is the chapter in which we meet our first non-Ishmael main character: Queequeg, a cannibalistic harpooneer from a made-up island in the South Pacific who unexpectedly becomes Ishmael’s (literal) bedmate. (Now Things Are Actually Happening.)
Queequeg is a somewhat troublesome character, built out of baseless assumptions and stereotypes. You can’t expect a book written by a white American in the mid-19th century to be entirely free of troubling notions about race, and this one isn’t. But let’s give Melville credit for what he’s trying to do, which is to present a character whose cultural difference from the novel’s white frame is an asset and not a deficiency. The specifics of his characterization, particularly the pidgin English, do rankle a little. But at the risk of sounding too charitable, I do find myself appreciating the broad strokes of the argument.
And the way Ishmael introduces Queequeg into the narrative drives the point home early and fast. The landlord — which is what Ishmael calls the innkeeper — of the Spouter-Inn does the heavy lifting. His surname is “Coffin,” a word which will come to take on a substantial significance for both Ishmael and Queequeg later in the book. (I know this because I have cheated and read the epilogue.) Peter Coffin is the biggest Moby-Dickwad we’ve met so far. He decides that Ishmael and Queequeg will sleep two-to-a-bed this night, and as soon as he makes that decision it becomes a huge private joke for him. Coffin’s well aware that Queequeg is harmless. Still, he insists on dropping cryptic, racist hints to Ishmael that his sleeping companion may in fact be mortally dangerous. So basically, before we get to know Queequeg through Ishmael’s more progressive eyes, we see him as he is seen by the bulk of the white Americans he interacts with: as a disfigured monster, a person so profoundly “other” that one cannot relate to him. In the end, though, it will turn out that this book’s disfigured monsters — human and otherwise — will be white.
At the end of the chapter, Peter Coffin’s practical joke pays off: Queequeg is startled to find a strange man unexpectedly in his bed, and Ishmael is mortally frightened to find himself in the company of a startled man he has every reason to think is a murderer. Hearing the commotion in the room where he’s paired them off, Coffin arrives to defuse the situation, and all is well. It’s as close as classic literature gets to farce without actually being a straight-up farce.
Chapter 4: The Counterpane
Ishmael wakes up to find Queequeg’s arm flung around him matrimonially. Hmm, I wonder if I Google “Ishmael/Queequeg fanfic” what would OH MY GOD
This is the chapter where we’re introduced to the real Queequeg, as opposed to the monster that Peter Coffin portrayed him as. Still, Ishmael regards him as a bit of an archeological curiosity. The business about him being part “civilized,” part “savage” is distasteful. You’ll realize by now that I have a strong impulse to relate to Ishmael, but there are limits.
Also, every time Ishmael shares a memory from before the start of this story, it is fucked up. First there was that bit in the first chapter about knocking people’s hats off in the street. Now there’s stuff in this chapter about him hallucinating a phantom hand as a child. The man is coping, but he needs therapy.
(By the way, if it seems like I’m glossing over the plot, that’s just because the plot is still happening in dribs and drabs at this point. The plot of chapter four is “Ishmael and Queequeg wake up.” What actually transpires has a lot more to do with the characters and their relationship than the story. So you’re pretty well caught up.)
Chapter 5: Breakfast
Ishmael descends from his room to eat a hearty morning meal. He generously forgives Peter Coffin for his skullduggery. He observes that you can tell how long a whaler has been ashore from his tan. And he complains that none of his fellow tenants at the Spouter-Inn want to talk at the table. It’s easy to assume, because he’s the narrator of the book — and a verbose one at that, that Ishmael is one of those people who never shuts up. But how could he have become so worldly-wise if he weren’t also an accomplished listener? I understand his frustration at this silent breakfast. If you’ve got a good story: tell it, goddamn it. In as much detail as possible.
Chapter 6: The Street
This is another of Ishmael’s purely descriptive chapters, so let me just take this moment to say wow, does New Bedford ever sound a lot like my hometown. I’m from Fort McMurray, Alberta, a middle-sized oil town in what most people would consider the frozen north. Like New Bedford, it is a place where the land itself is almost comically inhospitable and ugly. When Ishmael describes New Bedford, he tells us that “parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony.” And yet, “the town itself is perhaps the dearest [most expensive] place to live in, in all New England.” He makes a big thing of how big and lavish the houses are in this landscape that ought to be desolate — all because of whaling: the mad slaughter that was at the time the fifth-biggest industry in the United States. All these mansions, Ishmael says in an impressively cinematic turn of phrase, “were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”
Fort McMurray is much the same. It is a deeply inhospitable part of the world. First off, it’s freezing. My mom still lives there and lately she keeps texting me complaining, justifiably, about the fact that it’s been minus 40 for a week. It snows for half the year. Also it’s flat and featureless and a million miles from the nearest ocean and/or mountain. But mostly it’s just bone-chillingly cold. The cold in Fort McMurray is so pervasive that it’s practically a state of mind. Live there long enough and your soul freezes.
And yet, much like Ishmael’s New Bedford, it was until recently cripplingly expensive to live there. Some of the houses in the nice neighbourhoods are, if not impressive and beautiful then at least imposing and large. And why? Because of the prevalence of an equally destructive industry as the whale slaughter that Ishmael will come to abhor. Whence came yonder lofty McMansions? One and all, they were dug out of the earth and refined out of the sand.
Not quite as evocative as Ishmael’s image of houses being dragged out of the ocean, I grant you. But I’m not Herman Melville, no matter how hard I try. Anyhow. Back to business.
Chapter 7: The Chapel
Ishmael and Queequeg spend the next three chapters in church. The church they go to actually exists, by the way. It burned down in the 1860s, but they rebuilt it. It was originally a church specifically for the whalers of New Bedford and their families — a place to go and pray that neither you nor any of your loved ones will get eaten by sea monsters. It’s a valid mandate for a church: people died at sea in droves back then. The main purpose of this chapter is to establish that fact. The memorial plaques on the wall of the chapel make us aware of the fact that we are following Ishmael on a journey of staggering risk. It’s Melville’s way of ratcheting up the tension, the way a fantasy writer might point out all of the human bones in the cave that the would-be dragonslayer has just entered.
Except that it’s also really powerful. As Ishmael observes the grieving families around the chapel’s memorials, he reflects: “Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.” It’s an observation that applies to more than nautical deaths. Imagine having a missing loved one. Plenty of people in that situation, in this country. “Ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.”
Chapter 8: The Pulpit
In keeping with the chapel’s general decor, the pulpit is fashioned in the likeness of the prow of a ship. Ishmael doesn’t come out and say it, but this is real tacky. The whole idea of decorating a whaler’s chapel like a ship is tacky. It’s like the pastor thinks the congregation needs these symbols of seafaring life to remind them of their shared identity. If that’s true, then it isn’t a very strong shared identity. There was a seafood restaurant like this in Fort McMurray, which is full of nostalgic expat Newfoundlanders. Rigging along the walls, part of a rowboat affixed to the ceiling. I always thought, how can this possibly be helping?
Here’s something interesting: Wikipedia tells me that the tacky pulpit was Melville’s invention. There was no such thing in the actual chapel. But after Moby-Dick became a hit, they made one. Ugh.
A final observation: Ishmael expresses an opinion that the pulpit is at the head of the world. The person giving a sermon is in the lead, and everybody else follows. Given certain things that happen in the next few chapters, I’m inclined to think that this is less a display of religious conviction from Ishmael than a display of faith in the power of language. The pulpit is a place where speeches are made, and people act on those speeches. That’s powerful, and it’s a good illustration of why Ishmael believes in language, and storytelling, more than anything else. (Alas, his faith in language will betray him when he falls under the spell of a famously adept speechmaker with one leg and an axe to grind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
Chapter 9: The Sermon
(We’re still at church. Nothing’s happening still.)
If the chapel’s decor was tacky, then Father Mapple’s constant use of sailor-speak as metaphors is downright vulgar. “…one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” Please. Ishmael is generous not to render harsh judgement on all this. Melville surely must mean for us to.
Still, the Father’s sermon is pretty clever. He starts off with a hymn: a whaling-inspired adaptation of Psalm 18 in the hymnbook Melville grew up with, in which a sinner is filled with fear and anxiety before finding salvation in prayer. Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” is a better version, with kickass piano and no happy ending. After the hymn, Father Mapple tells the story of Jonah, which is A LITTLE ON THE NOSE YOU’VE GOTTA ADMIT. But he tells the story of Jonah’s encounter with the whale in a way that makes it fit the narrative of Psalm 18 (and “Sinnerman,” actually). A rhetorical ninja move. And he is capable of some really good lines, our Father. I particularly like this one: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Kind of backs up Ishmael’s antipathy towards paying passengers in the first chapter, doesn’t it?
Also, do you think this priest talks about Jonah every Sunday? Or did Ishmael and Queequeg just drop in on Jonah day by coincidence? Maybe he alternates between Jonah and the whale and Noah’s ark. I feel like this guy doesn’t have time for Bible stories about the desert.
Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend
First, the plot: Ishmael gets back from church, bonds with Queequeg, and worships a wooden idol with him – no small thing for a Presbyterian.
Here we have a chapter where my Norton Critical really comes in handy. The good Dr. Hershel Parker’s footnotes have pointed out to me that the 30 pieces of silver Queequeg gifts Ishmael with are an echo of the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus. They also inform me that, in spite of Ishmael’s straightforwardly admirable and humanist justification for joining Queequeg in his worship ceremony (dude just wants to be friendly) it is a blasphemous justification according to the conventional reading of Exodus. (“I am a jealous god” and all that.) So, 30 pieces of silver for a betrayal of the lord. A neat metaphor. But I’m with Ishmael on this one. To hell with jealous gods. Just be nice.
The footnotes also assert that Melville’s blasphemy was maybe the second-most important reason why his writing career ended prematurely. The first, seemingly, was piracy. Not the fun maritime kind of piracy, though. That would just be too on the nose. The banal, intellectual property kind of piracy.
Chapter 11: Nightgown
Another chapter in which Ishmael and Queequeg bond with each other in bed. Ishmael carefully elides any sexy business that may have happened, leaving gaps for the internet to fill in. I do wonder whether Melville actually wanted us to see Ishmael and Queequeg as lovers. I hope so.
Also: I really love Ishmael’s point about us not being fully ourselves unless we have our eyes closed. It’s a way of shutting out the reality outside and constructing our own reality. There’s a degree of narcissism in this. I suspect that no narrator, and indeed no writer, could manage a book like this without being at least a bit narcissistic. But Ishmael’s is a benign narcissism: it allows him to understand others better because he has fully taken stock of himself.
Chapter 12: Biographical
At last we get to hear Queequeg’s backstory. He’s the son of a king on a non-existent Pacific island. “It is not down in any map,” Ishmael informs us, “true places never are.” Whatever.
Basically, Queequeg decided one day after an encounter with some white men who came by on a ship that he’d like to visit Christendom, learn what he can, and return to his people to help engender some kind of cultural exchange. So, he managed with great difficulty to convince the captain of the ship to take him to America. But soon he came to realize that white Christians could be cruel and venal and that this wasn’t his world. But then, neither was his home island, anymore. He felt he was too Christianized to rightly ascend his father’s throne. Thus, he is a man without a country: a seafarer who can live nationlessly aboard whaling vessels until such a time when he feels it’s right to go home.
Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow
AND WE’RE MOVING. After eleven chapters in New Bedford, our narrator has finally set off for the OG whaling port of Nantucket on a schooner. He’s got Queequeg in tow and thank god for that, because this chapter also contains AN ACTION SCENE, a thing our scholarly narrator seems ill-adapted for, however much of a salt he is.
I seriously love this moment where we first see Queequeg in action. One of the would-be whalers (Ishmael calls him a “bumpkin”) on the schooner dares to mock Queequeg, and he responds by calmly THROWING HIM INTO THE AIR and flipping him around SO THAT HE LANDS PERFECTLY ON HIS FEET. SIDDOWN, BUMPKIN. Naturally, this display of Jackie Chan-style comedy violence provokes the ire of the captain. But that ire can only last so long, because the ship’s boom comes detached, leaving everybody on deck scrambling. Having now established that Queequeg is Spider-Man, it makes perfect sense when Ishmael tells us that he single-handedly fixes the problem in a whirlwind of jumping and lasso twirling — rescuing our lowly bumpkin in the process since he’s been flung overboard in all the commotion. I guess that’s how awesome Queequeg has to be if he wants to not get treated like shit. He has to be an actual superhero.
Do these tall tales of Queequeg’s derring-do strain credulity? Maybe. But remember what book we’re reading. You can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.
To be continued.