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.

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;

Moby-Dick, Chapters 29-33

Chapters read: xxix. Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb, xxx. The Pipe, xxxi. Queen Mab, xxxii. Cetology, xxxiii. The Specksnyder

Page reached: 140 of 522 (26.82%)

Status Report: Oh, man. Chapter 32. This is probably a strong contender for the title of Most Skimmed Chapter In Classic American Literature. I would have skipped it myself if I hadn’t resolved to read this book in its entirety.

Thirteen pages long — about three times the length of the average chapter — “Cetology” has the narrator giving an impromptu lecture on the nature of the whale, grouping the beasts into fourteen categories and offering lengthy descriptions of each. Here, Melville uses a literary technique known as OMG BORING! In some other context I might have found this engrossing, but here it’s like, “Dude, you got your marine biology lecture in my adventure story!”

I wonder how many people have quit reading Moby-Dick at “Cetology”. I bet this chapter is a veritable Goodwin Sands, with a thousand shipwrecked readers littering its shore.

I could have been one of them, as Moby-Dick is perilously close to violating my One-Third Reading Policy, which states that I shall abandon any book that I am not enjoying when I am a third of the way through it. Unfortunately I am determined to finish this thing, so quitting on page 174 isn’t an option. But Cetology has sapped my of all momentum. Chapter 32 is a disabled vehicle in the center lane of this book’s narrative.

Words looked up::

  • Ferrule: A metal ring or cap placed around a pole or shaft for reinforcement or to prevent splitting.
  • Hone (“Sailors put [the oil] on their hones”): Whetstone

Moby-Dick, Chapters 22-28

Chapters read: xxiii. The Lee Shore, xxiv. The Advocate, xxv. Postscript, xxvi. Knights and Squires, xxvii. Knights and Squires, xxviii. Ahab

Page reached: 119 of 522 (22.80%)

Status Report: Confessing to kinda liking Moby-Dick in my last report brought the jinx down upon my head, because this twenty page block did nothing for me. In it we learn about the crew of the Pequod, including, at last, the mysterious Captain Ahab himself. Honestly, I don’t even like meeting people in real life, so this fell short of escapist entertainment for me.

More to the point, who the hell puts exposition on page 100? It’s like breaking away from a film 40 minutes in to show the opening credits. And right after the ship set sail, too — what a tease. If anything, there’s less action now that the story has begun than there was when the protagonist was still wandering aimlessly around New England. Even Melville seems to recognize the monotony of this stretch of prose, giving two adjacent chapters the same name.

I understand that knowing the background and disposition of these characters might be helpful later in the book, but this is less an introduction to the dramatis personae than a dissertation on them. He describes them at length, but from afar; we don’t actually get to meet them. When literature professors exhort their students to “show, don’t tell,” this is what they are trying to avoid.

Favorite passage: A description of the second mate, Stubb: “A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. … When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair.”

Words looked up::

  • Pestiferously: Morally evil or deadly; pernicious.
  • Quoggy (“a mature man who uses hair-oil … has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere”): I can’t find a definition of quoggy anywhere, and I even stumped my local librarian on this one. The only reference I can Google up for it is a essay called “Melville’s Contribution to English” but, unfortunately, I don’t have access to read the entire article. Still, if Melville “contributed” the term to English, that seems to imply that he just made it up.
  • Investiture: The act or formal ceremony of conferring the authority and symbols of a high office.
  • Unvitiated: Pure
  • Taffrail: The flat upper part of the stern of a vessel, made of wood and often richly carved.
  • Mizen: A fore-and-aft sail set on the mizzenmast. (Mizzenmast: The third mast or the mast aft of a mainmast on a ship having three or more masts.)

Moby-Dick, Chapters 17-22

Chapters read: xvii. The Ramadan, xviii. His Mark, xix. The Prophet, xx. All Astir, xxi. Going Aboard, xxii. Merry Christmas

Page reached: 101 of 522 (19.34%)

Status Report: You know, despite all my grousing (though, given the setting of the novel, “carping” might be a more appropriate term), I am enjoying the book so far. It is not what I expected at all. I was bracing myself for 500 pages of turgid, byzantine prose, so steeped in symbolism that the plot was little more than a hook onto which the author could hang pages upon pages of religious allegory. In truth, Moby-Dick is, first a foremost, a fairly straightforward adventure yarn, a classic tale of “Boy Meets Whale, Boy Loses Whale (and Leg), Boy Goes in Search of Whale” story.

As for Melville’s logorrhea … well, I’ll tell you a secret. I like long-winded authors. One of my favorite contemporary writers is John Irving, famous for his ability to bury a 100 page story in 400 page book. And the novel I’ve most enjoyed in the last few years was House of Leaves, a book which, like Dick, has more asides, tangents, and digressions than actual narrative.

The atomic story unit in Moby Dick, I’ve discovered, is about twenty pages; that is, some major event that advances the plot happens about once every score of pages. I’m now on page 100, and I’d say about five things have really transpired: we met Ishmael, Ishmael met Queequeg, the two traveled to Nantucket, they signed papers to serve on the Pequod, and the Pequod set sail (at last, in the final line of chapter 22).

This works out great for me, as I reading the book in twenty-page chunks — 20 x 30 days = 600 pages, which means can take four days off and still finish it before December. So, really, it’s like tackling a chapter a day. And each evening, as I tuck into the novel, I feel like I am reading the next installment of a serialized adventure story found in the back of Boys Life magazine.

Words looked up::

  • Investing (“… a rag of a black handkerchief investing his neck): To clothe; adorn. To cover completely; envelop.
  • Confluent: flowing or running together; blending into one

Moby-Dick, Chapters 10-16

Chapters read: x. A Bosom Friend, xi. Nightgown, xii. Biographical, xiii. Wheelbarrow, xiv. Nantucket, xv. Chowder, xvi. The Ship

Page reached: 79 of 522 (15.13%)

Status Report: “Let’s go grab some lunch,” you propose to a co-worker.

“Yeah, that sounds good,” she replies. “Where do you want to go?”

“Oh, anywhere is fine. What do you feel like?”

“I don’t care, I like everything.” She ducks her head into another person’s cubicle. “Hey, Carolyn, we’re going to lunch. Do you wanna come?”

Fast-forward seventy minutes. You’re standing in the reception area of your office, and your “lunch party” now contains enough of your colleagues to form two rugby teams. You’re not even sure who you are waiting for, though you occasionally see people wander off toward the restrooms, or back to their PCs to check their email “one last time” before you depart. You still haven’t settled on a destination. Your stomach has begun digesting its own lining out of desperation.

This is how Moby-Dick is making me feel.

At least we’ve gotten to the ship. But it has yet to sail. And as Chapter 21 is entitled “Going Aboard,” I’m guessing it’s going to remain moored for another score of pages at the minimum.

Much of the last seven chapters was devoted to the burgeoning friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Having shared a bed the night they met, the two are now shacking up at every opportunity, though — and I cannot stress this enough — in a completely non-homoerotic way. I say that for the benefit of any school superintendents reading this, who would ban this book from their library in a heartbeat if they knew that, so far, the novel has been much more Brokeback than Humpback.

Favorite Passage: First sentence for chapter fourteen: “Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.” Actually laughed out loud when I read that. Either Meleville got writer’s cramp that morning or seven chapters were excised between 13 and 14, as lack of notice-worthy events did not deter him from writing the first 80 pages.

Words looked up::

  • Punctilious: Strictly attentive to minute details of form in action or conduct.
  • Trump (“All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump”): A reliable or admirable person.
  • Quahog: An edible clam (Venus mercenaria) of the Atlantic coast of North America.
  • Galliot: A light, single-masted, flatbottom Dutch merchant ship.
  • Celerity: Swiftness of action or motion; speed.