Notes on Moby-Dick (which one day I will finish): Part 3

LET’S REVIEW. Ishmael has set sail at last aboard the whaling vessel Pequod, captained by the mysterious Ahab, about whom much has been implied and little has been actually established.

(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 24: The Advocate

Having just delivered his most generous volley of actual story thus far, Ishmael now stops in his tracks to mount a defense of the whaling industry. I don’t quite know what to make of this. It’s easy to look at this novel as an environmentalist story of humanity’s attempt to dominate nature, with catastrophic consequences. There are those who believe Melville actually intended the story to be read this way. If that’s true, then this chapter is the first serious case of Melville, our author, disagreeing with Ishmael, our narrator. Ishmael steps an inch closer to Lemuel Gulliver, a narrator that Jonathan Swift transparently thought was an idiot.


Not Ishmael.

The most outlandish claim that Ishmael makes in this chapter is that whaling helped to end colonialism in South America. He actually credits whaling with the emergence of “eternal democracy” in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. This is patently absurd, and Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that Melville was well aware of its absurdity. If we’re taking Ishmael at his word, this idiocy is the most Gulliver-esque that he ever gets.

The thing I’m struggling with here is that I’d like to be able to read Moby-Dick as an environmental story, but I’m not sure that’s more important to me than being able to uncomplicatedly sympathize with Ishmael. Maybe we can square the circle. Allow me a moment to follow Ishmael’s example, and play advocate for him.

Ishmael’s Get Out Of Jail Free card is his earlier statement that he is “quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.” The process of telling this story is a deep dive into old traumas: experiences that would certainly be enough to clue Ishmael in to the horrors of whaling. Perhaps in this chapter Ishmael is simply extending his customary social niceties to the horror that defines his whole life: the entire edifice of the whaling industry. This serves a story purpose as well: this rose-tinted outlook will enable us to more easily sympathize with the slew of experienced and enthusiastic whalers that Ishmael is about to introduce.

If you’re not entirely convinced by this, well neither am I. But I’m not sure this argument is any weaker or less committed than Ishmael’s.

Chapter 25: Postscript


She NEVER smelled like fish.

This tiny chapter wasn’t included in the original British printing, which is a shame because the U.K. is certainly where it would have caused the most amusement. Ishmael continues his argument from the previous chapter by pointing out that every British monarch is consecrated with sperm oil at their coronation, doubtless lending the newly-crowned royals an unbecoming maritime aroma. I would have appreciated some guidance from Dr. Parker on whether or not this is true but he nipped out for a cig at the end of this chapter, so Google will have to do. 

The oil used in coronations starting in the 17th century is a perfume that includes orange blossom, cinnamon and jasmine among other things. The one used to anoint Elizabeth II wasn’t far off from that same formula. So, Ishmael’s claim that the royals smell like sperm whales, while amusing enough to cause censorship in England, is seemingly false. 

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

The next three chapters consist of tell-don’t-show character sketches of the six men we haven’t met yet who are crucial to the story to come. Starbuck, for example is “A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.” Ironically, “a tame chapter of sounds” is precisely what we’re reading right now. It feels like Ishmael is admitting to us that he’s baffled by Starbuck: that his own tendency to describe and pontificate renders Ishmael unable to depict such a man of action with the necessary vigor.

He’s too modest; for me anyway, Ishmael’s characterization of Starbuck rings true. There were never any whalers in my family, but there were plenty of fishermen. The most successful of them shared Starbuck’s conscientiousness and wariness of the sea. They had no patience for anybody with a cavalier attitude towards a dangerous job. They, too, knew “that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

Chief mate Starbuck is severe and humourless, but he’s the sort of person you want on your team. So it’s troubling when Ishmael implies that this story will bring about a “fall of valour” in Starbuck. Brace yourself.

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Bizarrely enough, this chapter has the same title as the previous one. It feels as if Ishmael has only broken up the chapters up because he got a little too excited at the end of that last one and needed a moment to collect himself. What’s the easiest way to get from the prayerful ecstacy of “bear me out in it, O God!” to the banality of “Stubb was the second mate?” Chapter break. 

Stubb, incidentally, is the second mate. He’s a man so unconcerned by the dangers in the world around him that he hums while he hunts sea monsters. Ishmael ascribes his cheerfulness to his constant habit of pipe smoking — a pipe containing only tobacco, we’re told. We’re treated to another of Ishmael’s dubious cosmic notions, which is that all the world’s air is polluted by the misery of every person who’s died here. Stubb’s pipe, we’re told, filters all that out. It’s a beautiful flight of fancy, and an elegant way to avoid calling this man an idiot outright.

The third mate is Flask, and you’d think he’s the last person Starbuck would want to be working with. “I will have no man on my boat who is not afraid of a whale,” Starbuck said in the last chapter. Yet here we are. Flask strikes me as even more of a liability than Stubb aboard the Pequod. Stubb is a buffoon, but Flask is impetuous and I feel like that’s worse.


How to set up a chessboard.

Finally we meet the harpooneers, starting with our beloved Queequeg who we already know. Next, there’s Tashtego: an Indigenous harpooneer from Martha’s Vineyard. The Indigenous people from the region Tashtego hails from are the Wampanoag, though he isn’t identified as such in the text (so far). One gets the sense from Ishmael’s description of him as the descendent of brilliant archers that he is a good deal swifter than his boss, second mate Stubb. Finally, the diminutive Flask commands a harpooneer named Daggoo: an enormous black man that Ishmael describes somewhat condescendingly. Nevertheless, he takes this as an occasion to mention that in whaling, while officers are almost always “American” (he means white), the industry’s workforce is truly multicultural. And in spite of his condescension, this workforce is where Ishmael’s sympathies mainly lie. Remember, he told us in his first chapter how “the commonalty lead their leaders,” and only one chapter ago he waxed poetic about how brightly God’s dignity shines “in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike.”

Moby-Dick can’t totally escape the racist attitudes of its time. But the whaling vessel where it takes place is a multicultural society. That’s one of the most important things Ishmael communicates to us as he sets up his chessboard.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Ahab might be the most recognizable character name in Moby-Dick, in spite of the fact that its most famous sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” Adaptations of the novel have a tendency to shunt Ishmael to the side in favour of the Pequod‘s one-legged captain. It’s not hard to see why. Ishmael is a novelistic conceit: a distinctive, multidimensional character who nonetheless has very little to do with the actual story. The story belongs to Ahab. And as a storyteller, Ishmael knows that Ahab is his ace in the hole.


This is the cover of my beloved Norton Critical. I like this illustration by Oleg Dobrovolskiy, but I can’t imagine picturing Ahab like this.

Witness the difference between how he introduces Ahab and how he introduced his slew of inferiors in the last two chapters. Ishmael was willing enough to sum up Stubb, Flask, and even Starbuck in a few declarative sentences, the way an undergraduate might in an exam. But with Ahab, after teasing the reader with suggestions and premonitions and dropping his name with little context like “Bad Wolf” in Doctor Who, Ishmael permits us to get to know the mysterious captain the way he did: through observation. First, we take careful note of his absence. Then, we experience the crew’s shock at his sudden presence. Finally, we take stock of the man from his appearance and way of moving about the ship.

But Ishmael can’t keep the high-flying language at bay for long. He is fully committed to elevating Ahab into tragic heroism: “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” The poor man can’t help but render himself the second most memorable character in his own story. Poor guy.

Chapter 29: Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

He speaks! As he descends into his cabin, Ahab mumbles, “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.” His first words in Moby-Dick: another portent of death.

Also worth noting: the title of this chapter is a stage direction. Ishmael will play with this more in later chapters, but for now it’s just one more indication of how much he’s puppetmastering his story into a dramatic shape, rather than laying it out genuinely according to his memory. And indeed, this chapter finds Ishmael penning a soliloquy for the second mate, Stubb, who’s starting to feel something like a Shakespearean fool: a hapless, much abused dogsbody who stumbles upon nuggets of wisdom in his rambling speeches to nobody.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce. A cool thing about making blog posts is finding dodgy old paintings to illustrate them with.

First comes the episode that the chapter title alludes to, in which Stubb and Ahab interact for the first time. Ahab abuses Stubb with Shakespearean overzealousness (“I will not tamely be called a dog, sir,” says Stubb; “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” replies Ahab, measuredly) and possibly kicks him so hard he instantly forgets it happened. Then, Ishmael quotes Stubb directly in a speech that goes on for a whole page, during which there is nobody else around. Note that one of the people who isn’t around is Ishmael himself, unless we conjecture that he is very good at inconspicuously listening to people talk to themselves and remembering it word for word.

The Shakespearean nature of Ahab is much remarked upon, but the most Shakespearean moment in this chapter (and the best) belongs to Stubb, who could simply say “time to go to bed,” but instead says this:

“Here goes for a snooze. Damn me, it’s worth a fellow’s while to be born into the world, if only to fall right asleep. And now that I think of it, that’s about the first thing babies do, and that’s a sort of queer, too. Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ‘em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth — So here goes again.”.

Chapter 30: The Pipe

If Ahab and Stubb ever had anything in common, it would have been their mutual love of pipe tobacco. And as if to drive home the fact that Ahab has nothing at all in common with Stubb, Ishmael devotes an entire little chapter to the act of Ahab throwing his pipe overboard: “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more.”

Chapter 31: Queen Mab


“Gotta find the queen of all my dreams…”

At last, Shakespeare finds his way into a chapter title: Mab being the queen of dreams, most famously described in Romeo and Juliet. This chapter brings us even more primo Stubbiana. And this time Ishmael actually gives him an audience for his ramblings: the thoroughly disinterested third mate Flask. Stubb, preoccupied by the kick that may or may not have happened the previous night, has had a weird dream that he simply must share.

In Stubb’s dream, Ahab kicks him and Stubb attempts to kick back, only for Ahab to suddenly turn into a pyramid. Pyramids are of course the subject of many whack-a-doo conspiracy theories. They are ancient, mysterious and inscrutable. Possibly extraterrestrial. Much like whales, if you subscribe to that sort of thing. And like Ahab lost his leg at battle with the white whale, in his dream Stubb loses his leg in a kicking battle with a pyramid. Stubb has ceased to be a Shakespearean fool and has taken on the role of holy fool — the hapless idiot you pay attention to because he has visions of the truth in his madness. Unbeknownst to him, Stubb has dreamed a reenactment of how Ahab lost his leg. Except in this version, Ahab himself has become the monster.

Stubb finishes recounting his dream just as Ahab calls out for the crew to keep an eye out for white whales. Stubb once again demonstrates that though his wits may be dim, his intuition is second to none: “A white whale — did ya mark that, man? Look ye — there’s something special in the wind. Stand by for it, Flask. Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind. But, mum; he comes this way.”

Aaaaaaannnnd CLIFFHANGER.

Chapter 32: Cetology

At last we’ve made it to the most infamous chapter in Moby-Dick. Just as we’ve started getting to know our captain and his retinue of old salts, Ishmael once again draws the story to a screeching halt to enumerate and categorize the different kinds of whales.

These are the bits of Melville’s novel that might compel some to label it “bloated” or “indisciplined.” I dunno. I wasn’t remotely interested in reading Moby-Dick when I was under the impression that it was primarily a seafaring adventure story — the sort of story it’s sometimes adapted into by readers who prioritize Ahab over Ishmael. It wasn’t until I cracked it open to “Loomings” and met our maddeningly discursive narrator that the book called out to me. Adam Gopnik put it better than I possibly could in a New Yorker piece about an abridged version of the novel in 2007:

“When you come to the end of the compact Moby-Dick you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that “Cetology” is my third-favourite chapter of Moby-Dick up to this point, next to “Loomings” and “The Lee Shore.” And how could it not be? This is the chapter in which the most bookish man to ever sail the seven seas categorizes the whales using terminology taken from bookbinding.

This choice on Ishmael’s part is not arbitrary. He is intentionally thumbing his nose to science. As far as Ishmael is concerned, a whale is not a mammal; it is a giant fish. Because of course it is. Just look at it. Read the story of Jonah, or any of the sources that Moby-Dick’s eighty epigraphs came from, and you’re sure to find it referred to as such. Reason may have it that a whale is not a fish, but the popular imagination says otherwise. For Ishmael, that’s more important.


Duodecimo is even littler.

And so, we have whales categorized in “books.” The big ones are “folio whales,” named for the largest size of book, the middle-sized ones are “octavo whales,” named for one of the middle sizes, and porpoises are classed as “duodecimo whales,” after one of the smaller sizes of books. Ishmael guides us through several examples of each, pausing to offer folksy sailor’s wisdom on many of them. He also offers a list of probably fictional whales that amusingly includes the blue whale, which was thought to be either extinct or altogether legendary when Moby-Dick was written.

But the real reason to love this chapter comes at the end of it, when all the taxonomy is done and dusted. Ishmael takes pains to inform us that his system of categorizing the whales is incomplete and inadequate, and hopes for some enterprising soul to make amendments to it someday. It’s not that Ishmael couldn’t finish writing Whaleipedia on his own: it’s that he’s built his entire aesthetic around incompleteness. That’s what he was getting at back in “The Lee Shore,” when he wrote that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” landlessness being the state you’re in on an unfinished voyage. It also ties in with Ishmael’s perpetual unwillingness to just get on with the story the way that Gopnik’s abridgers would have him do. That would be anathema to him, because the end of the story is death. All of these sorts of things — endings, destinations, homecomings, logical conclusions and states of certainty — are anathema to Ishmael. Home is death for the soul. Better to die at sea than live on land, as Milton might phrase it.

Ishmael savours the journey and rues the destination. Very soon we’ll learn that Ahab is the other way around. The white whale must die. Everything that happens between now and that teleological event is a mere inconvenience.

“God keep me from ever completing anything,” Ishmael proclaims in an aphorism that defines him and this novel better than maybe any other single sentence. Maybe it defines me, too. How many things have I left unfinished? How many times have I pulled the brakes on a train of thought before arriving at a troubling certainty? And how long will it take me to finish reading this book? Do I also prefer to remain adrift in the seas of incomprehension, frightened at the prospect of arriving anywhere?

We may never find out.

To be continued.


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