I. In this riff: Ch. 37-48.
II. Oof. Twelve chapters. Not sure how up to covering them I am, but let’s go—
III. Ch. 37, “Sunset.”
Ahab has just revealed that The Pequod’s true mission is vengeance on Moby Dick. “Sunset” is a short chapter and continues the Shakespearian mode initiated in Ch. 36, “The Quarter-Deck.” (It begins with the stage direction, “By the Mainmast; Starbuck leaning against it.”) We enter poor Starbuck’s inner monologue: “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field!”
This rhetorical conceit—a play on a stage with players—playfully plays out over the next few chapters, culminating in Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” which reads like a playwright’s script. Ishmael is subsumed into this dramatic grammar, a bit player. Or perhaps he is the orchestrator of events. Or maybe just the recording witness. In any case, he arrives back to himself in—
IV. Ch. 41, “Moby Dick”—
I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.
Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine: Ishmael’s first-person I returns, but he assumes a kind of vacant post—he’s been absorbed into the unity of the crew, a unity in turn subsumed into Ahab’s monomania. In “Moby Dick” Ishmael provides a working background summary of Moby Dick’s history, including his encounter with Ahab. At the same time, it seems Ishmael’s consciousness has somehow absorbed portions of Ahab’s:
But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.
But I skipped a few chapters. Where were we?
V. Ch. 39, “First Night-Watch.”
Another very short chapter, another interior monologue—this time, “(Stubb solus, and mending a brace.)” We mostly get a bit of character-building: “Well, Stubb, wise Stubb—that’s my title—well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”
Go to it laughing: Moby-Dick is a tragedy, but it’s also a grand comedy.
VI. Ch. 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.”
The crew of The Pequod turns into a chorus. Chorus is not the right word: our boys are not on the same page (except that they literally are). A bit drunk from Ahab’s spirits, they indulge in songs. Melville marks most sailors not by name, but by origin: Dutch Sailor, China Sailor, Lascar Sailor, and so on. The final lines go to the cabin boy Pip though:
PIP (shrinking under the windlass). Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don’t. Fine prospects to ’em; they’re on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet—they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale—shirr! shirr!—but spoken of once! and only this evening—it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine—that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!
Poor Pip is already half mad on the road to ruin, his language jangled and his psyche scarred. It’ll get worse.
VII. Ch. 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
(That’s lazy on my part, right?
“The Whiteness of the Whale” is one of the better chapters of Moby-Dick.
“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid,” starts Ishmael, and then precedes to say, say, say—-and yet he tiptoes around the calamity at the book’s climax. (This ghost will foreshadow but not spoil.)
The third paragraph of this chapter goes on for almost five hundred words. Here it is (skip it if you like):
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Cæsarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.
(There are also a few really long footnotes in “The Whiteness of the Whale.”)
VIII. The last two sentences of “The Whiteness of the Whale” might serve as a tidy summary of Moby-Dick’s tropes and themes:
And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
And so they hunt the object of their ideal, as if that would give life meaning and order.
IX. Ch. 43, “Hark!”
A short chapter composed almost entirely in dialogue, but without the markers of a drama. Instead, Melville puts his character’s lines in quotation marks and lets them go back and forth. The chapter basically is more foreshadowing for the eventual revelation of Fedallah and his hidden crew.
X. Ch. 44, “The Chart.”
More on Ahab’s mad questing. We learn his plans to intercept the white whale. As always, Ishmael is permitted into psychic environs that seem as if they should be verboten. He is somehow present in Ahab’s slumbering and waking:
Ah, God! what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.
XI. Ch. 45, “The Affidavit.”
Ishmael seeks to validate the veracity of his tale with us, his readers. He invokes several “factual” (non-fiction!) texts, including an account from a man he claims as an uncle.
A key idea:
So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.
Ishmael tells us this is no allegory, perhaps signalling this is definitely an allegory—but a failed allegory, an ambiguous attempt at allegory, an allegory where object, symbol, and lesson will refuse to align neatly.
XII. Ch. 46, “Surmises.”
Moby-Dick is a novel of masters and commanders, and body and soul, themes I haven’t touched too much upon:
To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order. He knew, for example, that however magnetic his ascendency in some respects was over Starbuck, yet that ascendency did not cover the complete spiritual man any more than mere corporeal superiority involves intellectual mastership; for to the purely spiritual, the intellectual but stand in a sort of corporeal relation.
XIII. Ch. 47, “The Mat-Maker.”
Does Melville love hyphens or what? Like so many of the chapters of Moby-Dick are hyphenated—and the title is hyphenated, even if the whale isn’t. Anyway. “The Mat-Maker” is a bit of stage business to remind us that Ish and Queeg are, like, working on a whale ship and are part of noble Starbuck’s crew. And then Tashtego calls out a whale. And then they lower boats.
XIV. Ch. 48, “The First Lowering.”
For all it’s philosophizin’, Moby-Dick is still an adventure story, and “The First Lowering” glows with vibrant action.
We are introduced to the secret phantoms that were stowed away beneath decks—Fedallah and his crew, Ahab’s secret assassins. While Ishmael is generally magnanimous and unbounded by prejudice, the novel gives way here to ugly racism:
The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;—a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.
At an aesthetic level, Melville’s Ishmael is perhaps trying to work through an allegory of whiteness, using yellowness here in unkind and unwise methods—but I don’t think so. It’s just ugly.
XV. “The First Lowering” prefigures the disaster at the end of Moby-Dick. It’s a rough dress rehearsal for the outcome of Ahab’s mad quest, and it ends with Ish, Queeg, and Starbuck imperiled, “Wet, drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat”:
Floating on the waves we saw the abandoned boat, as for one instant it tossed and gaped beneath the ship’s bows like a chip at the base of a cataract; and then the vast hull rolled over it, and it was seen no more till it came up weltering astern. Again we swam for it, were dashed against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on board. Ere the squall came close to, the other boats had cut loose from their fish and returned to the ship in good time. The ship had given us up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of our perishing,—an oar or a lance pole.
XVI. Will Ish and Queeg survive? Has the ship given them up? Tune in next time, for Ch. 49 — “The Hyena”!