Moby-Dick, Chapters 51-54

Speaking of Town-Ho’s … (I ask you: what other blog can gracefully segue from Britney’s hoohoo to Moby-Dick?)

Chapters read: li. The Spirit-Spout, lii. The Albatross, liii. The Gam, liv. The Town-Ho’s Story

Page reached: 254 of 522 (48.66%)

Status Report: Okay, now Melville is just taunting me.

In my last report, I said that I might someday cobble together an abridged version of this book. It turns out that Melville has beat me to the punch. Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story is essentially a short story about another ship’s encounter with Moby-Dick. While long by the standard of most other chapters (it is twenty pages in length), it is considerably briefer than the 522 page account of the Pequod, and the author’s subtext appears to be: “Look at me! I can write tight, concise prose! When I feel like it! Which is never!”

It’s also entirely self-contained. So if reading Moby-Dick in its entirely doesn’t appeal to you, but you are curious to know what the book is like, you could read this chapter over a glass of wine or two and come away feeling like you’ve done “the Melville thing.”

Words looked up:

  • Fuller: One who fulls cloth (full: To make a garment full, as by pleating or gathering). From the comments: “Your definition of full is the incorrect meaning in this case: in this context, fulling cloth is to clean and shrink cloth using heat and pressure.” INFORMED!
  • Finical: Finicky
  • Hove: Past tense and past participle of heave.
  • Serried: Pressed or crowded together, especially in rows: troops in serried ranks.

If Only We Could Dispel Him …

The Washington Post:

Saudi Arabia is so concerned about the damage that the conflict in Iraq is doing across the region that it basically summoned Vice President Cheney for talks over the weekend...

That’s one good thing about our Vice President: at least we taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for his travel expenses. Some sheik in the Middle East makes a pentagram out of salt, lights some black candles, recites a passage from from the Necronomicon and poof: there he is!

Picture Day

I was surfing Flickr and stumbled upon this photo.

Naturally, I immediately emailed it to everyone I knew.

It seemed to elicit two distinct responses. Some immediately boarded the lollercoaster; others said they could hardly look at the photo, it made them so sad. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that parents were largely of the first opinion, and folks without kids of the second.

Here’s the funny thing about parenthood. On the one hand, having a child makes you inexplicably start loving all children. The Queen and I were pretty indifferent to the pants-pooping demographic before The Squirrelly was born, wanting to have one of our own only out of a desire for a minion. But now that we’ve up and made a kid, we’re suddenly flirting with infants on the bus and calling redheaded six year-olds “Sport” at the supermarket. When we’re eating in a restaurant and a couple with a baby sits at the next table, we cheerfully wave and make faces at the squirt, instead of bolting our food and fleeing for the exit, vowing never to return, as we would have five years ago.

On the other hand, parenthood tends to make you revel in the small injuries and indignities to which children are subjected (or inadvertently subject themselves). Before, upon observing an inattentive child walk headlong into a fence post, I would gasp in alarm and rush to his aid; now I’ll roar with laughter and take a mental snapshot of the scene, something to chuckle over for months to come. It’s a little bit of rebellion against our masters.

So if there are any childless women reading, bookmark this entry. The next time your period is a few weeks later, you may want to come back and take a gander at the photo above; if you snicker, it’s time to start shopping for bassinets.

Moby-Dick, Chapters 45-50

Chapters read: xlv. The Affidavit, xlvi. Surmises, xlvii. The Mat-Maker, xlviii. The First Lowering, il. The Hyena, l. Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah

Page reached: 224 of 522 (42.92%)

Status Report: I’ll say this much for Melville: he’s done a good job of compartmentalizing this novel, segregating “story” and “info-dump” into distinct chapters. Ishmael doesn’t break away in the middle of the action to spend eight and a half pages explaining why white is the scariest of all colors; oh no, that bit of pontification goes into a chapter all its own.

After a while, you get so you can intuit which category of chapter you are about to read based on the first paragraph alone. Here, for instance, is the opening of one chapter:

It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-coloured waters. Queequeg and I were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat, for an additional lashing to our boat. So still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of reverie lurked in the air, that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self...

And here’s another:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair...

Can you guess which is going to be The Boring One?

There have been half a dozen motion pictures based on Moby-Dick. When I started the book, I wondered how anyone could put this rambling narrative on film. Now I know how they do it: they shoot the entire thing, assemble the three hours of story into the theatrical release, and cobble the remainder of the footage together into a four-hour, two-part “Whales: Leviathans of the Sea” special for the Discovery Channel.

In fact, when I’m done with this, I may publish a list of the “story chapters” only, allowing y’all to read an abbreviated version of the novel (not unlike my guides on how to Fast-Forward Through The Star Wars Prequels. It’s nice that Melville made such a thing possible, by courteously keeping the exciting parts and the dull parts of Moby-Dick separate, thereby creating the McDLT of American literature.

Words looked up:

  • Phrensies: Archaic variant of “frenzies.”
  • Gudgeon: A socket for a rudder pintle. (Pintle: A usually upright pivot pin on which another part turns)
  • Exordium: A beginning or introduction especially to a discourse or composition
  • Tyro: A beginner in learning; novice.

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.

Moby Dick Update

I heard this on Tuesday’s Writer’s Almanac:

On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The British publisher accidentally left out the ending of the book, the epilogue. This confused a lot of British readers, because without the epilogue there was no explanation of how Ishmael, the narrator, lived to tell the tale. It seemed like he died in the end with everyone else on the ship. The reviews from Britain were harsh, and costly to Melville. At the time, Americans deferred to British critical opinion, and a lot of American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version with the proper ending. Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. As a writer, Melville never recovered from the disappointment.

Oh, great. You always visualize your first time reading Melville as this magical experience, something you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Now it suddenly feels like pity sex.

NaNoReMo has been torpedoed. Work ate my life, and will continue gnawing on the bones for another week or so. Right now my free time is spent eating meals directly from a vending machine and idly wondering if my family still lives in that house I vaguely remember.

I probably won’t be able to pick up the book again until Thanksgiving (this blog is pretty much on hiatus until then, too). I’ll still be liveblogging the novel as I go, but there’s pretty much no way I’ll finish by December.

Moby-Dick, Chapters 34-40

Chapters read: xxxiv. The Cabin-Table, xxxv. The Mast-Head, xxxvi. The Quarter-Deck, xxxvii. Sunset, xxxviii. Dusk, xxxvix. First Night Watch, xl. Midnight, Forecastle

Page reached: 170 of 522 (32.57%)

Status Report: I have fallen behind in my schedule, and am now reading the book in 30 page installments.

This book is taking over my life. Last night my wife asked if I wanted to watch one of the Battlestar Galactic episodes we have on DVD; I sighed and told her I had “work to do.”

It doesn’t help that Seattle has received nonstop rain since the first of November, including some of the heaviest downpours on record. I read about life at sea, put down the novel, look out the window, and see life imitating art, as my backyard becomes a lake and the road in front of my home transmogrifies into an impromptu creek.

I have a pile of unread and intriguing novels sitting on my bedstand. I look at them and feel like a married man in a singles bar.

Favorite passage: Second Mate Stubb observes Captain Ahab pacing the decks, deep in thought. “The chick that’s in him pecks the shell. ‘Twill soon be out.”

Words looked up::

  • Carking: Distressing; worrying; perplexing; corroding;