Moby-Dick – Chapters I-XVIII – Quick Check-In

Though dreadfully behind on Brona’s readalong, I am still plugging away at this American tome and really savoring it.  This is my second time reading Moby-Dick, the first time being nearly a decade ago.  The familiar scenes and phrases are coming back to me like old friends.

Nantucket NASA 2002
NASA Johnson Space Center – Earth Sciences and Image Analysis (NASA-JSC-ES&IA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first 18 or so chapters cover Ishmael’s land journey to his ship the Pequod, anchored at Nantucket, and meeting his unexpected, cannibal friend Queequeg.  Much has been written about the exploration of religion and culture that Melville covers in this introduction, where we see both conflict and communality between different characters, both on a broad scale and on a personal level.

What really gets at me this time is the range of emotions and “worlds,” if you will, which Melville shows us.  You feel Ishmael’s wanderlust in the first chapter, his mix of fear and humor on meeting Queequeg, and the gloomy aura of the church where Father Mapple preaches.  The whale bones which decorate the Pequod are just one detail which foreshadow things to come and which Ishmael, in spite of his irritating personality, will tell you about incessantly, like a close and endearing friend.

It is a slow and gentle descent into the plot’s ultimate chaos.  If you did not know the ending, you might not suspect it from this opening, which reads like a series of chronological vignettes. That is part of the genius of the book.

Some Bookish Pictures

Every so often, I get an urge to do something crafty.  “Crafty” here means having to do with crafts, not cunning plans (though it may amount to the same thing).  Today was one of those days, so I stopped by ye olde curiosity shoppe Dollar Tree and picked up some frames, because I’m cheap that way.

Remember this quote from Heretics?  I couldn’t find a great graphic of it online, so I decided to make one.  Here’s the printout (click for full size):

(The flourish is from Pixabay – I know they don’t require attribution, but I always feel like I should…habit!)

I picked up this little blue frame because it goes with my color scheme, but I wasn’t sure what picture to put in it.  I finally settled on the plans for the Nautilus (Disney version), along with Nemo’s motto, Mobilis in Mobili (“moving amidst mobility”).  Completely nerdy, but I love it.  🙂

Last bit of craftiness: I love triptychs, so thought I’d try creating one.  I found this whale picture uploaded by the Biodiversity Heritage Library, cleaned it up a little, and split it in three.  It was more difficult than I expected, but I think it turned out ok!  This one and the Chesterton quote I’ll probably be putting up on the wall at work.

Well, that’s it for now, but I have more ideas (and wall space), so there may be a part 2 to come.  😉

Wednesday Quote: Courage

Moby Dick final chase

“‘I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.’ By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

Over the years, I’ve collected various quotes about or related to courage (it is probably my favorite subject for quotes).  This bit of wisdom from Starbuck is something in particular I’ve carried with me, I suppose subconsciously.  At work, for example, I have some worries and personal insecurities, and instead of trying to ignore them, I’ve found it’s best to acknowledge, think through, then address them, in that order.  Fortunately, my job is worlds easier than Starbuck’s…

Melville’s "Mosses" – from an Old Mast

Aivazovsky - Strong Wind

The actual title of the book is Billy Budd and Other Stories, published by Penguin Classics.  However, there is such a similarity in the writing, I was reminded of the title of a Hawthorne collection, Mosses from an Old Manse.  Since Hawthorne was the dedicatee of Moby-Dick and also referenced by name in one of these stories, I’m sure Herman Melville would take the comparison as a compliment!

Overall, I give the book 4 stars, but it’s a mixed bag, so I’ll review each story on its own:

Bartleby, the Scrivener

I really loved this story.  It’s probably the closest thing to Kafkaesque, pre-Kafka, that I’ve read.  Bartleby is an enigmatic scrivener (copier – think Nemo from Bleak House), and it’s hard to say if he’s the hero or the antagonist, but he is certainly the mystery.  I’m still not sure what to make of it, but it’s one of those stories that is very good at painting atmosphere and the impression of things.

The Piazza

Another kind of mystery/word-painting…it seemed like this takes place in the Green Mountains in Vermont, though I’m not sure.  It’s about how the grass seems greener on the other side, but becomes less so the closer you see it.

The Encantadas

A whole set of sketches about the Galapagos Islands!  In the middle of reading this, I rewatched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, so some of the places they visit finally “clicked” for me as I read about them in these stories.  Some of the tales are purely descriptive, others are anecdotes, including “Sketch Eight: Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow,” about a woman who had “A heart of yearning in a frame of steel.”  Really great stuff, very thoughtful and often poetic.

The Bell-Tower

This was a strange story, more akin to a Doctor Who episode than anything else.  What grabbed my attention was the fact that it was about a mechanical figure, practically a contraption, but Melville made you think it was as mobile as an (lowercase-a) android.  Weird story.

Benito Cereno

To me, this was the dud of the group, which is unfortunate since it’s the longest story.  There was a lot of buildup and very little surprise in the plotline, and throughout, a lot of racist mentality coming from the main characters.  By that, I don’t even mean “ignorant prejudice” or “man of the times”; at least, it came across worse than that.  Not much to recommend here on any front.

The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids

Honestly (and after “Benito”), I had no idea what to expect with this one.  It was excellent.  This story contrasts two lifestyles – British bachelors in a prestigious club and New England single women working in a paper mill.  If you want to know why Melville is a great author, you need only read “The Tartarus of Maids” and you’ll understand.  He conveys such a vivid scene through beautiful writing, ultimately to shock you with what reality was for someone who could have been you – “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.”

Billy Budd, Sailor

I knew this story from listening to a radio drama version many years ago.  Still, there was so much in it that was thought- and question-provoking.

Billy Budd was an illegitimate child abandoned at birth, who later became a sailor on an English merchant ship, late 1700s.  Though happy, content, and well-liked on his “home” ship, he gets suddenly impressed into the Royal Navy, taken onto a ship under a Captain Vere.  Billy takes this in stride, cheerfully adapting to his new life and making no enemies of anyone – except, unbeknownst to him, a petty officer named Claggart.  Claggart’s dislike of Billy grows into hatred, and to the captain he takes his false accusation – that Billy is complicit in an imminent mutiny.

Wow…this story is like Moby-Dick in the sense that you could argue about it for hours.  Not simply over the moral dilemma, but over the story itself.  Why does Claggart persecute Billy?  What were Vere’s parting words all about?  And what did the surgeon have to do with it anyway (if anything)?

One thing that bothered me was the long speech the captain gives.  In it, he essentially says that, despite his belief in the ultimate Judge’s vindication of the accused, martial law must be still followed under the extenuating circumstances.  I find it difficult, especially in the context of a state (England) with a state church, that an authority figure would say “God will find him innocent” and “We need to dole out punishment” in the same breath.  Poor writing, captain’s paranoia, or what?  I don’t know.  It’s much more plausible to say “Let’s make an example,” which he indicates later on.  That at least makes utilitarian sense, and it is either practicality or paranoia that drives the captain’s reaction in this plot.

“Billy Budd” is a very good story, and I won’t say anything more, except that I recommend it.  Don’t read the synopsis ahead of time, yet if you do, you will nonetheless empathize with the “Handsome Sailor,” who never understood what happened to him.  5 stars.

You know you’ve been reading too much Moby-Dick when…

 …you glance at a shopping list and, for a split second, read one of the headings as “Whale Fishery”.  What it actually says is “Whole Foods”.

Years ago, when I first tried to read this book (and stopped halfway), I thought it was the most boring classic I’d ever read, as well as one of the hardest books I’d ever read.  The plot is pretty simple–an insane captain sets out to get revenge on a whale.  The book, however, happens to be over 600 pages long.  It alternates between telling the story and talking about whales, with whole chapters that read like encyclopedia articles with author’s commentary.

Surprisingly enough, though, this time I like it.

The writing style is very interesting.  It’s first-person, but the narrator is able to tell the reader practically as much as third-person narration does.  Sometimes the narrator tells the story like any other author, with even comic relief.  Other times he goes on for chapters about whaling, and whales, and his thoughts.  And, every time he changes the subject, he usually starts a new chapter.

The narrator himself is really annoying.  I mean REALLY annoying.  Why is it that, with all his self-righteousness of being fair and unbiased, he would still seem to be prejudiced towards certain kinds of people?  I especially disliked his attempted ironic comparison of the Quakers’ pacifism and their whale-hunting.  I think it goes without saying that there’s a big difference between killing a person and killing a whale. 

As far as Captain Ahab goes, the book brings out his sanity more than the movie version does.  There was, for example, an interesting subplot that shows how scheming he could be; I also get the impression that, before he lost his leg, he seemed to be a pretty normal person.  I’m going to have to watch the film again, but these seem to be a couple of the differences between the book and the film.

In any case, Starbuck is my favourite character. He is a rational character amidst “the madness of crowds”.  “‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!'”

Now, I’ve seen the 1956 version (a good movie, by the way), so I know how the story is going to end.  But the thing about Moby-Dick, is that it’s almost like a mystery.  In some ways, it’s more suspenseful than a mystery, because it’s not a story I can completely understand.  And it’s not like Lord of the Rings, either, where you can keep finding the answers to your questions–I don’t know if that’s possible with Moby-Dick.  It’s just really complex…an extraordinary book which tries to explain every little thing to the reader, and yet leaves me with nearly as many questions as before.

Something which I only learned recently is that a true-story whaling accident was part of the inspiration for writing Moby-Dick, and it just so happened that I had already read a book about it.  The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is an eyewitness narrative written in 1821 by Owen Chase, who was the second in command.  It’s a must-read in my opinion, an amazing survival story.  Even if I hadn’t ended up reading Moby-Dick later on, I was glad to have read Chase’s book first. I always prefer reading a book written by somebody who was actually there; and these days, whaling stories may not be as glamorous as pirates and Royal Navy books, but they’re nonetheless a fascinating part of American history.