I. In this riff, Ch. 112 of Moby-Dick, “The Blacksmith.”
II. “The Blacksmith” chapter is neither especially long nor short, and a reader could skip over it without missing any of the “plot” of Moby-Dick (while also misunderstanding the “plot” of Moby-Dick).
And yet reading the chapter again, I was struck by its terrible pathos (and ultimate irony). Ishmael’s tale is not just about whaling, but wailing. Poor Perth’s silent wailing is included here. Ishmael bears witness to the man’s disaster.
III. Ch. 112 focuses its camera on “Perth, the begrimed, blistered old blacksmith” of The Pequod, who, after working on Ahab’s leg, has “not removed his portable forge” from the ship’s deck. Thus, he is “now almost incessantly invoked by the headsmen, and harpooneers, and bowsmen to do some little job for them.”
Surrounded by a demanding “eager circle, all waiting to be served,” Perth is nevertheless “a patient hammer wielded by a patient arm.” Ishmael notes that, “No murmur, no impatience, no petulance did come from him,” and although he praises the old man’s fortitude, he nevertheless notes that Perth is “Most miserable!”
IV. Ishmael notes “A peculiar walk in this old man, a certain slight but painful appearing yawing in his gait.” Perth’s limp links him to Ahab, but the blacksmith is more forthcoming with his backstory. The crew of The Pequod persists in questioning him, “and so it came to pass that every one now knew the shameful story of his wretched fate.”
V. We learn that “one bitter winter’s midnight, on the road running between two country towns, the blacksmith half-stupidly felt the deadly numbness stealing over him, and sought refuge in a leaning, dilapidated barn.” In this halfway nonplace, his feet frozen, the blacksmith “at last came out the four acts of the gladness” and ushers in “the one long, and as yet uncatastrophied fifth act of the grief of his life’s drama.”
He falls into what “sorrow’s technicals called ruin,” despit his decades as “an artisan of famed excellence” with “a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife, and three blithe, ruddy children.”
Well so what happens, already, Ishmael?
Well so and anyway, “one night, under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home, and robbed them all of everything.”
A burglar?! Tell more, Ish?
“And darker yet to tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into his family’s heart.”
“It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.”
VI. “The Blacksmith” begins to tiptoe along a strange line of earnestness and irony.
VII. On one hand, Melville’s bombastic language and the blacksmith’s preposterous story seems to skewer nineteenth-century temperance tracts. Are we to believe Perth when he tells us that he became an alcoholic one night because his feet were cold? Further, his (hyperbolic, in Ishmael’s relation) story is riddled with other gaps as it approaches its maudlin conclusion:
Why tell the whole? The blows of the basement hammer every day grew more and more between; and each blow every day grew fainter than the last; the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes, glitteringly gazing into the weeping faces of her children; the bellows fell; the forge choked up with cinders; the house was sold; the mother dived down into the long church-yard grass; her children twice followed her thither; and the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond in crape; his every woe unreverenced; his grey head a scorn to flaxen curls!
Just how is it that Perth’s young (“daughter-like”!) wife and young children die? Nevermind, Ish. After all, Why tell the whole? (This in a novel that tells more than the whole, and then tells it again a different way.)
The blacksmith’s tale, in Melville’s telling, seems to me an ironic puncturing of sentimentality and overt moralism, a subtle satire on the temperance movement’s blinded scope.
But the blacksmith’s tale in Ishmael’s telling—
VIII. In Ishmael’s telling, there is something of earnest sympathy in the blacksmith’s tale. Consider Ishmael’s subtle identification with Perth in the chapter’s penultimate paragraph:
Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—“Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up thy gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!”
Ishmael, like Perth, has taken to the sea to avoid death, to avoid suicide—remember, whaling is Ish’s “substitute for pistol and ball.” He romanticizes the call to adventure by figuring it in the voices of a “thousand mermaids” singing, yet nevertheless understands the death-urge that underwrites this drive to the sea.
The chapter concludes with Ishmael telling us that,
Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall of eve, the blacksmith’s soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went a-whaling.
Again, Moby-Dick is a novel about whaling–and wailing.