Moby-Dick, Chapters 41-44

Chapters read: xli. Moby Dick, xlii. The Whiteness of The Whale, xliii. Hark!, xliv. The Chart

Page reached: 195 of 522 (37.36%)

Status Report: One nice thing about this book: even if you put it down for a few days, you don’t have any trouble remember where you left off. “Oh that’s right. They’re on a boat. And nothing. Is. Happening.”

Fortunately, considerably less nothing happened in this last fifty pages than in those prior. Captain Ahab convened the crew of the Pequod and publicly announced his intention to seek and destroy the white whale that cost him his leg; the first mate, in turn, publicly announced that the captain is cracked, thereby raising the specter of mutiny. Plus, Moby-Dick himself is described (though not yet seen).

This novel is written from a curious point of view. A few months back I was reading a primer of fiction writing, and one chapter discussed the various POVs you can adopt for your narrative. I always though there were three — first-, second-, and third-person — but, as this book pointed out, there are actually quite a few more. There is third person intimate, for instance, where you see all the events over the shoulder of the protagonist, and can occasionally even read his thoughts. There is third person objective, where you view all characters equally and can peer into the minds of none. And there is third-person omniscient, where the narrator knows (and relates) all the relevant facts, including what the characters are thinking and feeling. Third-person omniscient was apparently quite popular with nineteenth century authors.

Moby-Dick is written in first-person omniscient. Though told from the POV of Ishmael, and usually confined only to those events he directly observes, the narrative will occasionally wander about the ship, looking through walls, eavesdropping on conversations, and letting us know that other crewmembers think.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 44:

Had you followed Captain Ahab down into his cabin after the squall that took place on the night succeeding that wild ratification of his purpose with his crew, you would have seen him go to a locker in the transom, and bringing out a large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table. Then seating himself before it, you would have seen him intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye; and with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank. At intervals, he would refer to piles of old log-books beside him, wherein were set down the seasons and places in which, on various former voyages of various ships, Sperm Whales had been captured or seen.

Note that Ishmael had not followed Captain Ahab down into his cabin — he’s just relating what you would have seen, had you done so. How he knows this in never explained.

Likewise with the edutainment chapters. Ishmael knew nothing about whaling before he joined the Pequod; now that they are at sea, though, he suddenly breaks the narrative with entire chapters devoted to the taxonomy of oceanic mammals and the migratory patterns of whales. Apparently he can access Wikipedia via the Pequod wireless network.

I gotta say: I’m all for artistic license, but I don’t like Ishmael knowing more than he should. I’d prefer the character to be either a man or disembodied narrator, but having him as both smacks of cheating.

Words looked up:

  • Bruited: Spread news of; repeated.
  • Entablatures: The upper section of a classical building, resting on the columns and constituting the architrave, frieze, and cornice.
  • Japonica: An ornamental shrub (Chaenomeles japonica) that is native to Japan and cultivated for its red flowers. (oh, shit — no one tell my botanist wife I didn’t know that).
  • Magniloquent: Lofty and extravagant in speech; grandiloquent.
  • Alb: A long white linen robe with tapered sleeves worn by a priest at Mass.
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10 comments.

  1. extra credit: to what extent does writing in the past tense justify Ishmael’s apparent omniscience?

  2. You can be a big ass in English Class, but maybe get points if you talk about the book’s “meta-narrative,” and refer to “post-modernism.”

    I don’r know. I didn’t see it as a story, (disappointing after having seen all those adaptations: movies, Classic Comics, even “Mr. Magoo,”) but it’s more like a warm bath, something you settle into.

    I liked the whale-chasing chapters.

  3. Interesting that you write about the different points of view that writers use. I was reading Patricia Cornwell book Predator, and couldn’t quite figure out what literary technique it was. Now I know – third-person omniscient. She wrote only last year or maybe two ago, so I guess it’s still a popular writing style. I really enjoyed it, because the twist of the book completely depended on that form.

  4. I undertook the same exact journey–to read Moby Dick–about two years ago. I still remember that chapter all about the different ropes (or rope knots) used on a ship. Well, I forced myself through it, and the last 20 pages were actually quite entertaining. And I didn’t need to know anything about ropes in order to enjoy them. Thought the whole book could have been 100 pages or less. But you already know this. Anyway, I can now say that I have read it, and in the distant future, I guess you’ll be able to say the same thing. Melville’s “Bartleby the Scribner” (a long short story), who would prefer not to, suited me better.

  5. Sorry, meant “not too distant future.”

  6. two questions from someone who has never read moby dick:

    how exactly is moby dick responsible for the missing limb of captain ahab?

    and why is he called moby dick?

    thankyou

  7. Oh, you never learn the answer to THOSE questions.

    Mwahahahahah!

  8. Even though I haven’t checked in on your blog in a while, last night I dreamed all about Moby Dick.

    Maybe my subconscience was telling me to check in here?

  9. “Bartleby the Scrivener” is the saddest story I have ever read, and possibly the very best.

    But I am deeply in love with Herman Melville, despite the fact that chances are good he had a beard. *Moby-Dick* is the perfect narrative, in my mind: tortuous, infuriating, exciting, and funny. Even when it’s driving me crazy it’s still hilarious. I maintain that he knew what he was doing and did it deliberately, just to evoke (or provoke) this kind of reaction, and it WORKS. Arrgh.

    Or, given that it’s a book about seafaring, maybe “Arr.”

  10. Loving the series, MB.

    If the narrative addresses the reader, as in the chapter 44 excerpt above, wouldn’t that be second-person omniscient?

    Or perhaps not, since you’re not actually the narrator, just the one being addressed. Would that mean that only those “choose your own adventure” books are really written in second person?

    Anyone care to engage in this obscure bit of literary debate?