All these things are not without their meanings | Riff 3 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Breakfast/The Street/The Chapel/The Pulpit/The Sermon)

I. Chapters 5 through 8 of Moby-Dick are all pretty short and showcase the novel’s ever-shifting moods. Ch. 5, “Breakfast,” brims with humor and energy, which extends through Ch. 6, “The Street.” However, by the time we get off the street and into “The Chapel” (Ch. 7), Ishmael takes a sober, somber turn, meditating on death. Ch. 8, “The Pulpit,” continues the serious, philosophical tone, setting the stage for Father Mapple to take over the narrative in Ch. 9, “The Sermon.”

II. “Breakfast” begins with Ishmael forgiving the landlord Peter Coffin for “skylarking with me not a little in the matter of [Ish’s] bedfellow,” Queequeg. Ish values the humor:

…a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

“Breakfast” has a bustling comic energy. Ish describes the various whalemen setting down to eat: “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” (I encourage you to read that line aloud.) We also get the spectacle of Queequeg, “cool as an icicle,” eating bloody beefsteaks at the head of the table—with his harpoon no less!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. The comedic energy carries out into “The Street.” Here, Ishmael describes for us a carnival of cultures in New Bedford, a pavement teeming with “Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians” as well as “other sights still more curious, certainly more comical.” He gently mocks “the green Vermonters and New Hampshire men,” who head to New Bedford “athirst for gain and glory in the fishery,” pointing out their tendencies to overdress: “No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy.” Ish’s portrait of New Bedford extends to a description of its wealth and its beautiful homes, parks—and women. We get the sense that he’s over those “hypos” he was suffering in the novel’s opening chapter—or, rather, he’s intoxicated by the newness of his adventure.

IV. The atmospheric shift in “The Chapel,” is announced with a change in weather: “The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving sleet and mist.” Ishmael makes his way to a church peopled by “a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors’ wives and widows.” (A “scattered congregation” strikes me as an oxymoron.)

In strong contrast to the babble and verve of the two preceding chapters, in the chapel “muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm.”

Ishmael gazes upon marble placards memorializing dead sailors, sailors who never returned, and reflects,

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.

The line “refuse resurrections” calls back to Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael gives us a rare glimpse into his past. Punished as a child to a kind of small death on the summer solstice (okay, he’s made to go to bed early)—the punished Ish hopes for a “resurrection” from his fate and is visited by some “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” an ineffable something that simultaneously signals dread and hope.

Ishmael’s morbid pondering turns philosophical:

…how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.

And then in bit of foreshadowing of the book’s catastrophic conclusion, our narrator, thinking of the countless sailors lost and dead at sea, indulges in a bit of self-talk: “Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.”

V. “The Pulpit” isn’t a particularly memorable chapter, but it serves a significant rhetorical purpose. “The Chapel” gives us some of Ish’s most melancholy philosophizin’, culminating in self-talk about his own death. It’s an introspective, insular chapter; indeed, even as Ishmael furnishes us the details of the memorial placards, he confesses that he does “not pretend to quote.” Ish’s concern is ultimately not for the concrete particulars but for the abstract—the unnamed and unknown dead.

“The Pulpit” refocuses the narrative gaze, moving from Ishmael’s introspection to the imagery of Father Mapple ascending the stage to deliver his sermon.

VI. “The Sermon” is one of many chapters of Moby-Dick that can be read independent of the novel proper. It is one of my favorite chapters. Up until this point, we’ve largely been in Ishmael’s head, and the spare voices we get—a few lines of pidgin from Queequeg, some bantering with Peter Coffin—have the feel of reported speech. In “The Sermon” though, Ish’s consciousness gives way to Father Mapple’s. Mapple retells the story of Jonah in rapt detail, bringing “this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—” to vivid life. His Jonah is a sympathetic deject on the run who finds himself resurrected in the belly of a whale.

Mapple’s sermon quickly edges out any of Ishmael’s stage directions, flowing out uninterrupted for paragraphs. It usurps the voice of the novel, prefiguring Ahab, whose voice will dominate in future chapters. Ghostly Ishmael seems to fall into the background of his own adventure at times, and “The Sermon” is an early rhetorical example of this phenomenon.

As Mapple’s sermon comes to its conclusion, Ishmael returns to the narrative, but he’s still at a distance, still a mechanical describer of sights and sounds, not an analyzer or thinker here.

And it’s the final line of the chapter that stuck out to me the most in this reread:

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

If he is truly alone, then how does Ishmael witness his solitude?

1 thought on “All these things are not without their meanings | Riff 3 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Breakfast/The Street/The Chapel/The Pulpit/The Sermon)”

  1. A wonderful start to the New Year, to read these morsels every morning over breakfast. This is the beginning of the Great Re-set; telling us to go back and read masterpieces like Moby Dick. Thanks be from the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

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