Notes on Moby-Dick (which I still have not finished): Part 2

When last we checked in on Ishmael, he was aboard a schooner with his new “friend” Queequeg, headed for the port town of Nantucket AND THENCE FOR THE SEA.

(Edit, 2022: These notes are essentially just me recapping Moby-Dick as I read it very slowly and deliberately over the course of what has turned out to be several years. I’m writing it primarily for my own benefit and posting it for the interest of about five people who might care. Lightly edited out of sheer embarrassment.)

Chapter 14: Nantucket

Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that Melville had never actually been to Nantucket when he wrote Moby-Dick, unlike New Bedford.  (Here we have a case of Ishmael knowing something that Melville does not. Get used to it: Ishmael knows lots of impossible things. Just wait until chapter 34.) This whole chapter is a description of a place that Melville had no personal experience of. Rather, the details are taken from the copious readings that allowed him to start the book with eighty epigraphs.

But on the other hand, this chapter is rather short on realistic detail, especially compared to the New Bedford chapters we just read. Ishmael breezes through Nantucket, and he’s far less interested in what actually happens in the town than he is in its legend. Moby-Dick‘s New Bedford is a real place full of real people. Its Nantucket is a HERMIT COLONY OF OCEAN WIZARDS. This island of superhuman salts feels more than real: a wild place of mystical significance. No wonder Ishmael insisted on setting sail from here.

Also extraordinary: the idea that everything great about this totally fantastical chapter is the result of Melville working around the fact that he’s never seen Nantucket with his own eyes. Clever man.

Chapter 15: Chowder


Made some chowder.

I understand that this gigantic novel has approximately 1.7 women in it, so let’s take a moment to appreciate the arrival of the unfortunately-named Mrs. Hussey. She is the co-proprietor of the Try Pots: an inn that serves the best damn chowder in New England, or so Ishmael tells us. But before he and Queequeg may sample it, they must once again encounter a death omen: a structure above the door to the inn that unintentionally resembles a gallows. This keeps happening: first it was “Peter Coffin,” and now this. If we take Ishmael’s story at face value, some divine intelligence is clearly trying to tell him something. But why should we take him at face value when he won’t even tell us his real name? This is one of the main things I’m obsessed with in Moby-Dick, and I’ll try not to haul out the whole “Ishmael is an unreliable narrator” thing too often, because it’ll get tedious really fast. But details like this have the distinct ring of embellishment about them, reminding us that apart from anything else, Moby-Dick is also the greatest Big Fish story ever told.

Inspired by Ishmael’s enthusiasm towards the chowder at the Try Pots, I endeavoured to cook up my own very first pot of the stuff. I went for cod rather than clam in deference to my allergies. I found this recipe a sturdy base, though I substituted carrot for celery and added a splash of chardonnay to deglaze the pan after cooking the onion. The Try Pots’ chowder contains ship’s biscuit, known in Atlantic Canada as “hard bread.” So I had intended, as a nod to my Newfoundland heritage, to add a couple of Purity hard bread biscuits to my chowder. If I’d managed to find them, I’d have pounded them up fine the way fishermen used to when making fish and brewis aboard the schooners. (Purity hard bread has the approximate texture of petrified wood. A venerable old cookbook called The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes advises: “Place [the hard bread] in a piece of ship’s canvas or heavy calico and beat with a hammer or head of a small axe.”) Anyway, I couldn’t find any of the stuff in Vancouver. So I had to content myself by serving up my cod chowder with Jacob’s cream crackers on the side. I’ll provide an update if I make another pot after sourcing a proper hardtack.

I’m amused by Dr. Parker’s footnote about the expression “chowder-heads.” They are “those with mixed-up or downright stupid minds,” he writes, “but Ishmael intends no disrespect toward chowder.” Well. I should hope not.

Chapter 16: The Ship

Back to the story. Fortified by chowder, Ishmael attempts to find a whaling vessel for him and Queequeg to sign onto. But Queequeg has a catch: his god, Yojo, has already selected a ship. Yojo will only consent to the voyage if Ishmael should select the proper vessel with no guidance from Queequeg. Or as Ishmael explains it, getting excited again:

“But to my surprise and no small concern, Queequeg now gave me to understand, that he had been diligently consulting Yojo—the name of his black little god—and Yojo had told him two or three times over, and strongly insisted upon it everyway, that instead of our going together among the whaling-fleet in harbor, and in concert selecting our craft; instead of this, I say, Yojo earnestly enjoined that the selection of the ship should rest wholly with me, inasmuch as Yojo purposed befriending us; and, in order to do so, had already pitched upon a vessel, which, if left to myself, I, Ishmael, should infallibly light upon, for all the world as though it had turned out by chance; and in that vessel I must immediately ship myself, for the present irrespective of Queequeg.”

This chapter contains the first invocation of the name Ahab, but he’s not going to turn up for a while yet. This chapter serves as an introduction to another of the book’s key characters: a garish old battleaxe called the Pequod. From the very start, the ship feels like a haunted house, trailed by the ghosts of slain whales whose teeth and bones decorate her bulwarks. But there’s something undeniably impressive about her, too. Ishmael struggles to decide whether to portray the Pequod as a noble beast or a monster.

The Pequod belongs primarily to its major shareholders: a pair of old Quakers called Peleg and Bildad, a comedic double act who abuse Ishmael for no good reason, and cheat him on his pay. So many reasons to turn back. And so many chances! Alas. We never get to hear if Yojo approves of the Pequod or not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. As Queequeg freely admits, Yojo is a flawed deity.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan


A figure of the sea god Tangeroa, who Yojo is possibly based on. Photo stolen from the British Museum, which doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

This is another chapter in which the cultural differences between Queequeg and Ishmael play out as a farce. On the one hand, Ishmael writes off Queequeg’s religious beliefs as “comical.” But he’s happy to extend the same characterization to his own culture’s Presbyterian religion. Richard Dawkins has made me suspicious of this kind of undiscriminating dismissal, but in mid-19th-century America, proclaiming that both Christians and pagans alike are “dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” probably required a lot of courage.

In this chapter Queequeg locks himself in his hotel room for an entire day and prays in total silence, with the idol of Yojo balanced on his head. Having also locked Ishmael out of the hotel room in the process, he inadvertently causes a panic throughout the hotel. Nothing is funnier to me than Ishmael capering ridiculously through the hallways shouting “Murder! Apoplexy!” Meanwhile, the proprietress of the inn cannot believe that yet another damned sailor has committed suicide on the premises. (*SIGH* “FETCH ME THE FLOOR SCRUBBER”)

Anyway, Queequeg’s fine. The chapter concludes with Ishmael explaining to him that such religious devotion is pointless. Queequeg responds with a funny story about how he and his countrymen once ate fifty of their enemy combatants in one sitting and got terrible indigestion. Ishmael stares directly into the camera. Cut to black. 

Chapter 18: His Mark

However shaken up he might have been by that anecdote, it doesn’t keep Ishmael from helping his new “friend” sign onto the crew of the Pequod. Bildad and Peleg have some doubts about Queequeg’s religious convictions and dietary habits. Ishmael assuages these by basically saying “aren’t we really all the same, when you think about it?” Bildad and Peleg, being comedy buffoons, find this to be the most profound shit they’ve ever heard in their goddamn lives, and the discussion is over.

Buffoonish as they are, Bildad and Peleg manage a poignant moment at the end of the chapter. Once the business is complete, Bildad begins preaching to Queequeg and Peleg tells him to can it. Taking umbrage at this, Bildad asks Peleg if he himself did not fear death and judgement when he sailed under the command of Captain Ahab on his ***fateful voyage***. Surely in such dire circumstances Peleg must have taken solace in his faith. Peleg’s response:

“When every moment we thought the ship would sink… Think of Death and the Judgement then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.”

Moby-Dick has been very concerned with religion so far, but the life of the world to come is inherently less interesting to Ishmael than our own world, where marvelous, sad stories like this one can take place. 

Chapter 19: The Prophet


Here’s a painting of Elijah by Frederic Leighton who, fun fact, died of angina the day after he was made a baron. To this day, he holds the record for having been a baron for the shortest amount of time.

If Moby-Dick were the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, this chapter would be “dead men tell no tales.”

Ishmael and Queequeg meet a shabby-looking, pus-faced old sailor who tells them that they have shipped with a mad captain, that Ahab lost his leg in a fateful battle with a giant whale, and that this was in accordance with some prophecy. Then, like all decrepit prophets in adventure stories, he refuses to actually say anything useful, leaving Ishmael a bit creeped out and none the wiser about his captain-to-be.

It’s worth noting that in the Old Testament, Elijah was the name of the prophet who denounced the king called Ahab, indicating that Ishmael’s own name isn’t the only dubious one.

Chapter 20: All Astir

Look, another woman! There’s an old sailor’s superstition that women are bad luck on ships, and shouldn’t be allowed on board, even at port. But I guess the crew of the Pequod are progressive for their time.

Aunt Charity is one of many folks involved in the hustle and bustle of loading the Pequod for her voyage. Ishmael notes with amusement that all whaling ships must pack spares of everything. After all, Accidents Happen!!!

Chapter 21: Going Aboard

Well, the prophet’s back, and he’s being even more annoying.

ELIJAH: You didn’t happen to see a bunch of creepy men creeping around the ship in the darkness, did you?
ISHMAEL: Yeah, actually I did!
ELIJAH: *no actionable advice*

Regardless, Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod and learn, a mere 21 chapters into the book, that Captain Ahab is ready to set sail. For good measure, we even get our first mention of the first mate: Starbuck. (Incidentally, the world’s top coffee chain was nearly called “Pequod.”)

Also it’s established that on Queequeg’s fake island, humans are used as ottomans.

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas

In case anybody was curious to hear more about Aunt Charity, the vanishingly minor character from two chapters ago, we now learn that she’s Bildad’s sister and also the brother-in-law of the second mate Stubb. I don’t know what that makes Bildad in relation to Stubb, and I don’t know why it matters.  But Melville seemed to think it was important enough to mention. What a weird book.

This is the chapter where, at long last, the Pequod leaves shore. But there’s a dark cloud above this exciting occurrence, because the captain of the ship has not yet shown his face above deck. Perhaps he’s simply not needed, because we learn that the custom is for the ship’s owners to pilot the ship away from the docks. Peleg and Bildad do so and take a small boat back to shore, and presumably out of the story.

A couple of amusing details in the footnotes: firstly, in a tortured effort not to swear around the pious Bildad, Peleg cries “Aft here, ye sons of bachelors!” In Dr. Parker’s opinion, this is “arguably funnier than the common epithet he avoids using.” Hardly arguable, I’d say. Finally, the song Bildad leads the crew in as the ship pulls away is called “A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy.” This is the very sentiment Peleg so eloquently refuted a mere four chapters ago.

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore


A weird thing about Moby-Dick is that there’s a card game based on it.

Man, I love this little chapter. First off, from the fifth sentence on it could just as easily have been written by Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot. Also, it is the closest Ishmael has come thus far to revealing the ending of the story. He mentioned in passing that Queequeg has died at the time of this story’s telling. But in waxing poetic on the coming death of Bulkington, Ishmael strongly implies that much of the crew perishes with him. More than that, this chapter holds up a tiny, crystal clear mirror to this book’s iconic first chapter.

Ishmael spends a lot of that opening chapter categorically enumerating all the different reasons why the sea is so important: all that stuff about the factory workers gazing longingly from the harbour and the artists painting magical streams.  In chapter one, the sea is important for a hundred small, prosaic reasons. In this chapter, the importance of the sea comes down to one crucial, abstract notion. The pithiest way I can think of to phrase it is this: home is death for the soul.

The metaphor Ishmael is riffing on here is based on the idea that land is both the ultimate endpoint of all successful voyages, and it is the ultimate hazard in a storm. Land is the place where all mankind’s creature comforts reside, but if your ship gets dashed against the shore, you drown. In a storm, the safest place is the open ocean: vast, fathomless, empty. Nothing but uncertainty as far as the eye can see, but a lack of certainty means a lack of certain death.

We only know one thing about Bulkington: he cannot stay on land for more than a few days at a time. Clearly Ishmael sympathizes: one of the first things he told us is what happens to him when he hasn’t been to sea for too long. Being midway between two fixed points (“at sea,” as it were) is the organizing ideal of Ishmael’s life: it is the fundamental concept that guides the way he thinks about things. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” he writes. “All deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea, while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore.” For all his tendencies to categorize and enumerate, Ishmael does not wish to be certain of anything. He wishes to remain adrift in a sea of unformed ideas and half-told stories. Because the end of the story is death. Death is the only certainty. Best then to keep travelling forever. To never make land. To never go home.

Home is death for the soul. You can never stop running. You can never be certain of anything. You can never stay in one place. Home is death for the soul.

The Pequod has set sail.

To be continued.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s