Moby Dick

Moby Dick

by Herman Melville

Q:  In the chapter titled “Brit” halfway through the book, Melville describes Brit, a minute yellow substance on which the Right Whale largely feeds.  What figure of speech does Melville use to describe the Right Whales’ passage through this vast meadow of Brit, “which resembles boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat?”

A:  Melville uses an extended simile, which follows:  “As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.”

He compares this line-up of whales to mowers (today, combines, if we imagine an armada of modern farm machines cutting the wheat at harvesting time).  Here, he is a poet, aware of consonance and assonance, and internal rhyme.  Consonance is defined as a pleasing combination of similar beginning sounds: “morning mowers” and “marshy meads.”  The use of the consonant “s” through-out the extended simile, “side by side,” “slowly and seethingly” and preceding the word “scythe,” imitates the grassy, cutting sound the whales make as they strain the water sideways away from their lips and ingest the brit, which are really young herring and other fishes.

The use of the adverbial ending “ly” in “slowly and seethingly” recalls the word “sluggishly” in the paragraph before, and all combines to slow up the reading of the passage, which further fixes the panoramic, picturesque scene in our minds.  Watching it from the Pequod masthead, a hundred feet above the silent decks, Ishmael must have felt he was watching a gray parade of Right Whales passing by in slow motion.

If this were not enough, Melville’s description becomes a poetic work of art, as he describes further the path of blue water the whales leave behind them.  After a mower passes over a field of wheat, cutting it and threshing it, i.e. separating the valuable grainseed from the straw, the mower leaves the field a mass of straw and residue.  But Melville creates a painting with a wordbrush, and describes the wide blue wake that contrasts with the remaining yellow golden brit, left behind.  From his romantic view from the masthead, Ishmael sees the paintbrush line of blue, and from the quarterdeck, the sailors hear the grassy, cutting sound.  Truly, it is a remarkable, unforgettable simile.

Q:  The book Moby Dick was published in 1851 and already the Fugitive
Slave Act had been passed.  Melville, like all Americans was caught up in the peculiar and perplexing subject of race, and found himself at random, unexpected moments dwelling on the importance of skin color.  How does race play a significant role in this book?

A.  In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed which meant that authorities in both the North and South were obliged to return an escaped slave to his owner.  A crisis was developing in the nation.   Slavery had become a northern problem as well as a southern.  N. Philbrick speaks about this dilemma in the opening pages of his fascinating slim book Why Read Moby-Dick?”  In fact, Fred V. Bernard, in his essay “The Question of Race in Moby-Dick” states that Melville’s father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts’ Supreme Court, was the only nothernn judge to return a slave to his owner in the South, for which he was roundly condemned by abolitionists and the New England press.

On board a whaling ship like the Pequod, race was not a factor.  All the sailors worked in harmony to bring in the whale.  However, it should be noted as Philbrick so aptly says “In addition to white sailors from America and Europe, there were Native Americans, African Americans, Azoreans, Cape Verdeans and South Sea Islanders.  Amongst the harpooners on the Pequod, Queepeg was Polynesian; Daggoo, African; Tashtego, a Wampanoag American Indian; and Fedallah, Persian (Irani).”

Be that as it may, even if the sailors worked in harmony at sea, they still harbored an innate sense of their land identity.  So the color white for the non-white sailors was exceedingly significant, having just been on American soil where slavery was such a gripping social, political and ethical issue.  Whiteness for them inspired both awe and fear.  Beatings from a plantation owner, being traded or sold, being separated from wives and children.

When the white albino whale broke the surface of the water, after sounding, Ishmael who tells the story says, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me”…It was not so much his uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other Sperm Whales, but, a peculiar, snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump…The rest of his body was marbled with the same shrouded (white) hue,…and indeed the name White Whale… justified his vivid aspect, when seen sliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”  Ishmael emphasizes here and in other comments that he is afraid of Moby Dick’s whiteness.

For Ahab, killing Moby Dick was simple retaliation for his having bitten off his leg, described by his crewmen:  “And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field.”  Ahab simply wanted revenge.  The narrator continues, “Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, and came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”

But for the other non-whites on board for whom whiteness had been a source of so much travail and sorrow, Moby-Dick was evil.  Ishmael calls Moby Dick a demon and by inference, implies the White Whale is a “dumb brute with the instinct of the knowledge of the demonism in the world.”

Much of the seamens’ fears had to do with the “unwonted magnitude…of Moby Dick’s deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which he had over and over again evinced in his assaults.”  Many times a retreat turned into a treacherous assault, “for when swimming before his exulting pursuers, he had several times been known to turn round suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stove their boats to splinters, or drove them back in consternation to their ship.”

Sailors on board whaling ships like the Pequod, superstitious and “overawed by rumors and portents” saw him everywhere.  Ïshmael states that “One wild suggestings…was the unearthly conceit that Moby Dick was ubiquitous; that he had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time.”

Another curious fact Bernard quotes in his article on race in Moby Dick is that the Black reformer, Frederick Douglas, frequented Nantucket in 1841 and “along with 41 abolitionists boarded the ferry from New Bedford to Nantucket and complained about segregation aboard the ferry.”  The orator Douglas spoke of the “aristocracy of skin” that phenomenon that even today views “whites as superior (royalty) and blacks as inferior.”  When Ishmael was at the Spouter’s Inn in New Bedford in 1841, when the story Moby Dick takes place, he may have heard such talk about race.

Ïshmael is paired off with a non-White, Queequeg, at the Spouter’s Inn.  The landlord says his house is full – not a bed unoccupied: “But avast, you haint no objections to sharing a harpooner’s blanket, have ye?”  Later, by candlelight, Ishmael sees Queequeg, the harpooner from Polynesia who practices cannibalism, “Such a face!  It was a dark, purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares…His chest and arms were covered with tatoos, and dark green frogs covered his legs.”

The variegated tattooing on Queequeg’s body receives new attention at the end of Moby Dick, as Melville attempts to restore balance to a story that is consumed with “whiteness” (see Chapters 40 and 41, “Moby Dick” and “The Whiteness of the Whale).”  If Melville’s rhapsody with white tilts the story in favor of white sailors on board Pequod, or the dominance of the white race in society, the ending strives to right this imbalance.  The life-buoy plays a key role in downplaying the role of whiteness in this epic tale.

Let us trace the whereabouts of the life-buoy in the chaos of the final days.  On the first day of the Chase, Ahab’s whaleboat  is destroyed.  On the third day, after Ahab orders the crew of the damaged boats to return to the Pequod, Moby Dick attacks the Pequod.  Ahab’s whaleboat is now the only craft in the water with Ishmael on board as a substitute oarsman.  When Ahab harpoons Moby Dick, the line catches him round the neck: “he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.”

The Pequod starts to sink.  Fortunately, Ishmael had been flung out of Ahab’s whaleboat earlier and now watches the sinking of the Pequod from afar.   As the Pequod sinks with all the crew on board, it creates a spinning vortex.  From out of the wreckage, the life-buoy bobs up.  Ishmael clings to the life-buoy, earlier the coffin built for Queequeg, who once near death, lay down in it, preparing to drift out to sea to die.

Ishmael recalls the day Queequeg miraculously rallied, and immediately set about “carving the lid with grotesque figures and drawings that resembled the twisted tattooing on his body…Queequeg said the tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island who with these hieroglyphic marks had written out a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold…”

What is Melville saying here at the end, when Ishmael floats to safety on the lifebuoy-coffin?  Is he predicting that some day America will become like the ship Pequod, a federation of seamen of variegated colors, diverse and multicultural?  (See Chapter 27 where Melville speaks of the sailors who hail from various continents and islands and who now side by side are federated along one keel.)  What is the riddle here?  What is the implication of Ishmael’s rescue by the lifebuoy-coffin, as described in the Epilogue, “The coffin-lifebuoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side.  Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on the ocean main…On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last.”

Maybe, 175 years ago in 1841, Melville anticipated solving the riddle of America’s future with respect to race.  What Melville said in Moby Dick echoes in the racial statistics of the 21st century.  In the book The Browning of America by Ronald R. Sundstrom, the writer predicts that by 2040, non-whites (predominantly Hispanics) will be in the majority.

Q:  In his opening remarks on the book Moby Dick, Alfred Kazin says that “the persistent atmosphere of magnitude is the central image on which the book is founded.”  What are some passages that illustrate the grandeur and magnitude of the ocean, and the whales who so “divinely swam” in it?

A:  No passage better illustrate Kazin’s emphasis on magnitude than Melville’s description of a whaleboat in the midst of a squall in the ocean.  The small insignificance of man, as the four whaleboats near a swarm of fifty sperm whales, contrasts with the immense magnitude of an angry ocean.

Here, in the chapter “The First Lowering” each whaleboat will come up empty- handed, as the sailors confront the crashing force of successive, massive waves, whose magnitude in size increases with the wind from an unexpected squall.  “The vast swells of the omnipotent sea made a surging, hollow roar as they rolled along the gunwales…and the boat was briefly suspended in an agony of tipping…the sudden profound dip into the watery glens and hollows; the keen spurrings and goadings to gain the top of the opposite hill; the headlong, sled-like slide down its other side.”  But the size of the waves, and the futility in controlling the boat in a storm reinforces the magnitude of the force of water in hurricane-like winds.

Re-examining Kazin’s remark that “magnitude is the central image on which the book is founded,” of course then the gigantic whale itself deserves special mention.  Throughout the book Melville lovingly describes his length and appearance.  He speaks of the Sperm Whale’s uncommon magnitude “with groves of harpoons stuck in his flanks, attesting to his artfulness in evading man.”  He calls the Sperm Whale a monster with an uncommon bulk.

After repeated attempts to apprehend the concept of the giganticness of the whale, as for example in this passage, “The Leviathan in his full majesty and significance is best seen at sea…and afloat; the vast bulk of him is out of sight,” like an iceberg whose total mass is 1/7 above water and 6/7 below, Melville resorts to describing the anatomy of the whale: the tail, the spout, the head, the eye.  The better to comprehend his size and magnificence by examining his individual body parts.

Several especially descriptive passages emphasizing the magnitude of a body part are as follows:

1)  “The monster perpendicularly flitted his tail forty feet into the air, and then sank out of sight like a tower swallowed up.”   That’s a poetic line, but Melville factually states “that the tail comprises an area of at least fifty square feet and at its utmost expansion exceeds twenty feet across.”

2)  Melville in his chapter on The Fountain states, “For even when tranquilly swimming through the midday sea in a calm, with his elevated hump sun-dried as a dromedary’s in the desert; even then, the whale always carries a small basin of water on his head, as under a blazing sun you will sometimes see a cavity in a rock filled up with rain.”  Melville, in his day was unable, scientifically, to decide whether the spout was condensation from this basin of water, or a sparkling mist emerging from the spout-hole fissure.  Actually, when a whale exhales air, a spout occurs.

3)  “Far back on the side of the head, and low down, near the angle of either whale’s jaw, if you narrowly search, you will at last see a lashless eye, which you would fancy to be a young colt’s eye, so out of all proportion is it to the magnitude of the head.

4)  “Wherefore, you must now have perceived that the front of the Sperm Whale’s head is a dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever…The severest pointed harpoon impotently rebounds from it.  It is as though the forehead of the Sperm Whale were paved with horses’ hoofs…And yet its contents comprise the most delicate oil.””

Lastly, we could dwell on the magnitude of the task (a) of writing 823 pages on the subject of whales or (b) of describing the transformation of the Pequod’s deck into an oil factory, as the dead whale is cut up into pieces and its blubber boiled down for oil.  Quoting from The World Book provides the briefest summary of the three valuable substances of the Sperm Whale: “i) the most important was sperm oil which came from the head and the blubber, and was used as fuel for lamps, ii) spermaceti, from the whale’s head, which oil was used to light candles, and iii) ambergris, from the intestines, for expensive perfumes.

It is an epic.

Q:  In the chapter “The First Lowering,” we get the first real look at Starbuck in action, and we see why Ahab has designated him the Chief Mate of the Pequod.  Starbuck has before been described as staid and steadfast, “a native of Nantucket and a Quaker by descent.”  Thirty years old, he was exceedingly fit, exuding “an inner vitality and strength.”  Yet for all his sobriety and fortitude, he was uncommonly careful when it came to hunting whales.  “He had no taste for lowering for whales after sun-down, nor for fighting a fish who persisted in fighting him.”  In what other way does Melville show the character of Starbuck?

A:  In the same above chapter, the personality of Starbuck is plain to see.  Melville compares him to the second and third mates and we see clearly how in his own quiet way he is superior to them.  We see Starbuck interacting with his men on board his whaleboat.  Starbuck’s boat contains Ishmael and four other oarsmen and Queequeg, his harpooner.  Ultimately, a squall will occur, Queequeg’s harpoon will only graze a whale, and their whaleboat will be swamped.  But before all that, Melville swings from whaleboat to whaleboat, comparing the style and technique of Starbuck to Stubbs and Flask, as they chase the fifty whales.

The Mates are the bosses who sit in the stern as the oarsmen and even harpooners row furiously towards the whale.  Starbuck, Stubbs and Flask urge the men on, yelling at them, coaxing them with words of encouragement, and praising them when they bring the whaleboat close enough for a harpoon try.

The Second Mate Stubbs (and sometimes Melville confusingly calls him Third Mate), was good-humored, easy and somewhat careless.  On his whaleboat was the harpooner, Tashtego.  Flask was ruddy, stout and short and Daggoo, the gigantic Negro, was the harpooner for him; ambition made up for Flask’s small size.  And of course Ahab’s harpooner was the inscrutable Persian Fedallah and the five Manilla oarsmen Ahab had smuggled on board.

Flask stood on the stern platform, shouting loudly, “Sing out and say something my hearties. Roar and pull, my thunderbolts!  Beach me, beach me on their black backs, boys!  Lay me on – lay me on!  O, Lord, Lord! but I shall go stark, staring mad:  See!, see that white water!”  In a fit, he pulls his hat from his head, stamps on it, picks it up and flings it out to sea.

Stubbs seems to appeal to his men’s comraderie and sense of fellowship.  “Pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children, pull, my little ones,” drawlingly and soothingly sighed Stubb to his crew.  “Easy, easy, don’t be in a hurry – don’t be in a hurry.  Why don’t you snap your oars, you rascals?  So, so, so, then; – softly, softly!  That’s it – that’s it! long and strong.  Give way there, give way!  The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions.  Pull, will ye?  pull, can’t ye? pull, won’t ye?  Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don’t ye pull?”

Starbuck, however, has a completely different technique, which produces just as good results as the other Mates, if not better.  His words could be described as intense, and the whaleboat is driven forward by his oarsmen who feel this intensity.  “Pull, pull, my good boys,” said Starbuck, in the lowest possible but intensest concentrated whisper to his men.  His sharp, fixed eyes stared ahead of the bow.  The silence of the boat was at intervals pierced by one of his whispers, now harsh with command, now soft with entreaty…Soon, with a lightning quick whisper, Starbuck said, “Stand up!” and Queequeg, harpoon in hand, sprang to his feet.  Queequeg stood at the bow.  “That’s his hump.  There, there, give it to him!” whispered Starbuck.

Melville, by comparing Starbuck to Stubb and Flask shows that among the three, the Chief Mate Starbuck is clearly the commander.

Q:  Describe Ahab and Starbuck’s adversarial relationship.

A:  Melville makes Starbuck a force for good in face of Ahab’s demonic, single-minded plan to pursue Moby Dick, endangering his crew and ignoring his duty as captain to bring in sperm oil for the Pequod owners.  When Ahab nailed the gold doubloon to the main-mast as a reward for whoever sighted Moby Dick first, he said to the crew, “And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

Starbuck said to Ahab, “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.  It’s blasphemous to seek revenge on a dumb brute who simply smote thee from blind instinct.”  Starbuck tells Ahab that chasing the dumb brute Moby Dick is blasphemy, as the whale is only a beast of the ocean.

Ahab overrides Starbuck’s objections.  “The crew, Starbuck, the crew!  Are they not one and all with Ahab in this matter of the whale?” Starbuck is silent, as he acknowledges what Ahab says is true.  Finally, Starbuck murmurs low, “God keep me! – keep us all!”

Starbuck and Ahab become more adversarial, as Ahab steers his ship into the waterways Moby Dick frequents in different seasons of the year.  Every time Ahab comes across another ship at sea, he asks the Captain, “Have you seen the White Whale?” In this way, with each new morsel of information he alters the course of the Pequod.  In his cabin every night he studies the wrinkled rolls of yellowish sea charts of all four oceans before him, and plots the path of Moby Dick’s course.  Ahab knew the sets of all tides and currents and could calculate the drifting of the Sperm Whale’s food.  Placing the Pequod at a whale’s feeding ground, with great confidence he sought his prey.

Q:  In what way are Starbuck and Ahab equals?

A:  In many ways, Starbuck and Ahab are equals.  They are both Nantucketers and each married with a son, their wives having bid them farewell at the wharf the morning of their departure in the early morning mist, with the beckoning waves of the Atlantic Ocean gently lapping at the Pequod’s hull.  The poet in Melville creates another lovely simile, “Like the landless gull, who at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows, so too the Nantucketer, at nightfall on board a whaling ship, furls his sails and lays himself to rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

Starbuck comes across Ahab leaning against the rail of the Pequod, heavily and wearily.  The weight of the world is on his shoulders.  Ahab suddenly becomes aware of Starbuck’s presence, “Starbuck!”  “Sir,” Starbuck replies.  Starbuck finds him in a pensive and reflective mood.

He tells Starbuck he is 58 and has passed “forty years of continual whaling, forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time!”  In that time he has only been ashore a total of three years.  He speaks fondly of his son, who we presume he would like to shape into an image of himself.  His wife is a young-girl wife whom he married at fifty and will soon widow.

Starbuck sympathizes with Ahab and begs him to turn the ship around and head for Nantucket. “Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart after all! why should anyone give chase to that hated fish!  Away with me!  Let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!  Wife and child, too, are Starbucks…Away! let us away! this instant let me alter the course.”

But Ahab is unable to stop his pursuit of the White Whale.  He averts his face from Starbuck.  The Pequod sails on towards Moby Dick, and Starbuck withdraws.  The fate of Captain Ahab and all his crew aboard the Pequod is sealed.  They will sink in the waters of the Pacific without a trace, as Melville lamentably concludes “the great shroud of the sea will roll on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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