Annotations and Commentary on Moby Dick

by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 2018

Last Updated 04 Jun 2018

<-  Previous  |  Next  -> <-    |  Next  ->

CHAPTER 1: Loomings

"Call me Ishmael." Much has been written about this, so I'll merely point out that Ishmael was an outsider. The full story can be found in Genesis, particularly Genesis 16:1-16 and 17 20-21. But though he is often described as an exile, this is not completely accurate. It is true that his mother Hagar was exiled by Sarai (a.k.a. Sarah), but that was when she was pregnant with Ishmael, and she returned before the birth. Later, God says, "And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation." [Genesis 17:20] But God emphasizes that His covenant is with Isaac. So Ishmael is more like a disinherited older son passed over for a favored younger one. Of course, he also got to miss out on almost being sacrificed, so this was an advantage.

"The Dark Night of the Soul" ("La oscura del alma") was a poem by 16th century mystic San Juan de la Cruz, but the term in English is usually associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald's line, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning." Douglas Adams wrote a novel titled The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Since Melville pre-dated Fitzgerald, he presumably have patterned his "damp, drizzly November in my soul" after the original, or references to it.

"Hypos" in "whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me" is an abbreviation for hypochronia, as meaning a morbid depression of spirits rather than a physical illness.

The Cato mentioned is Cato Marcus Porcius (95 B.C.E.-46 B.C.E.), considered the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. After being defeated in his attempts to defend Sicily and to preserve Rome from the tyranny of Julius Caesar, Cato committed suicide by stabbing himself. He is not to be confused with Cato the Elder (also named Cato Marcus Porcius, 234 B.C.E.-149 B.C.E.) or Cato Publius Valerius, the poet, who lived about the same time as Cato the Stoic.

Some names and places were straightforward: "Manhatto" seems to be Ishmael's poetic version of Manhattan. In Manhattan, he mentions Corlears Hook, Coenties Slip, and Whitehall. The first two are now under landfills, Corlears Hook near FDR Drive and Cherry Street, and Coeties Slip near Pearl and South Streets. Whitehall is still there, at the southern end of Broadway. Corlears Hook was known for prostitutes before and during Melville's time, hence (according to many) the term "hookers".

The Van Rensselaers were Dutch settlers who arrived in New York in 1630 as patroons of Rensselaerwyck, near Albany. This was the largest patroonship granted by the Dutch in what were at the time their colonies. The patroonship continued after the transition to English colonies, and did not end until 1839. Though originally the patroons had almost total control over the land and its tenants, after American independence, they lost all their feudal laws and became merely large estates subject to Federal and state laws. Melville was descended from the Rensselaers.

The Randolphs were one of the First Families of Virginia, arriving in 1643.

By "the Hardicanutes" Melville is probably referring to the descendents of Harthacut, a 11th century king of Demark and Egland. This is a sly bit of humor--it is ulikely the Renssalaers and Randolphs would appreciate being lumped socially with a Viking king of hundreds of years earlier.

A league is three miles. (This means, by the way, that Jules Verne's title 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the distance is 60,000 miles, and hence is not a depth--as is often assumed--but the total distance sailed.)

Spiles are wooden pegs driven into nail holes on a ship.

Ishmael makes the same sort of error in asking, "Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove?" as the coiners of the word "television" and other hybrid words did. He mixes Greek and Latin indiscriminately (Jove being the Latin name for Zeus). This is probably due to Melville's having to leave school at age fifteen to help support his family, and hence receiving only a partial classical education, covering the Romans, but not the Greeks (except as somewhat vague exemplars as culture).

An example of Melville's humor: "Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick--grow quarrelsome--don't sleep of nights--do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;--no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for going as cook,--though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board--yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;--though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids."

In Melville's time, both men and women used a purse to carry money.

"The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it." Seneca the Elder (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.) was a Stoic philosopher eventually forced to commit suicide for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Nero. Stoicism was a school of philosophy found by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century B.C.E. and emphasized the suppression of destructive emotions; Seneca and others claimed that "virtue is sufficient for happiness" and so true Stoics would ignore misfortune.

A hunks is a surly ill-natured person, especially a miser. Though it appears plural it is actually singular.

Ishmael says of how to go to sea, "I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,--what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!" The two orchard thieves are, of course, Adam and Eve. But money itself is not "the root of all earthly evils"; the reference is to 1 Timothy 6:10, which says, "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." [italics mine]

Ishmael says, "For in this world, head winds are more prevalent than winds astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagoean maxim)." This is not the Pythagorean Theorem, but the best-known maxim he promoted in his philosophy: Do not eat beans. (Yes, friends, even Melville made fart jokes!)

CHAPTER 2: The Carpet-Bag

To say that Nantucket is "Tyre of this Carthage" to New Bedford is to mean that Nantucketers were the founders of New Bedford (or at least the progenitors in some sense). Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) was founded three thousand years ago by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (in present-day Lebanon).

"The first thing I did was to stumble over an ash-box in the porch. Ha! thought I, ha, as the flying particles almost choked me, are these ashes from that destroyed city, Gomorrah?" The ash-box was there to provide ashes to spread on icy steps, paths, etc., during the winter. The dark color helped absorb sunlight (and heat) and melted the ice faster, plus the ash provided a grittier surface. In Melville's time, ash (from fireplaces, cooking fires, etc.) was plentiful and free, while salt cost money, and also did not provide a non-slip surface.

Gomorrah was destroyed along with Sodom for its wickedness: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; ... And [Abraham] looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace. [Genesis 19:24,28] It is interesting to note that in the Bible, Sodom is occasionally mentioned on its own, but Gomorrah is only mentioned in conjunction with Sodom. So Melville's choice of Gomorrah rather than Sodom here is intriguing.

Then Ishmael enters what he thinks may be an inn, and reports, "It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of 'The Trap!'" Tophet was a shrine to Moloch in ancient times: "And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart." [Jeremiah 7:31). It is also another name for Hell. There was no "Black Parliament" in either, but there were several English and Scottish Parliaments given that name. Ishmael's use of the words "blackness of darkness" emphasizes how ironic it is for a black preacher to preach using those terms for the representation of evil. And Melville did not invent them; the preacher's text was Jude 1:13: "Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever." With its "raging waves of the sea," how appropriate a text for a sea-faring town such as New Bedford! And is it a prefiguration in miniature of Father Mapple's sermon?

"Pea coffee" is just what it sounds like--a coffee substitute made from roasted English (green) peas.

"It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul's tossed craft." This is a reference to the northeast wind mentioned in Acts 27:14-18: "But not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon. And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive. And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat: Which when they had taken up, they used helps, undergirding the ship; and, fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail, and so were driven. And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship; ..." And of course, to New Englanders, the nor'easter is the most feared storm.

There follows a long analogy to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke 16:20-25. (This is a different Lazarus than the one who rose from the dead.) When Ishmael refers to "old Dives, in his red silken wrapper," that is the rich man, "Dives" being a Latin appellation for wealth.

Is the painting in the Spouter Inn a well-known painting, or just a generic whaling painting?

CHAPTER 3: The Spouter-Inn

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary thinks "squitchy" means "squishy"--having to do with water. However, "to squitch" means "to jerk or twitch", and the only use of the word "squitchy" is in Moby Dick, so I think Melville coined a portmanteau word, incorporating both the watery element of the subject of the painting and the reaction it generates in the viewer of it.

"It's a Hyperborean winter scene." Boreas was the North Wind, who supposed lived in Borea, which was later called Thrace and is north of Greece. Hyperborea was the land "above/beyond Borea", which at the time of Homer would have been around Yugoslavia. Borea was known as a place where the sun shone twenty-four hours a day (or whatever the ancient Greek units were) and so the fact that it has come to mean extreme northern lands, in the Arctic, is only fitting. ("Aurora Borealis" means "Northern Dawn".)

(Thrace is best known these days as the home of Spartacus, although this is not absolutely certain. When Spartacus was described as "a Thracian gladiator" it is not clear if they were speaking of his origins or his style of fighting.)

Did Nathan Swain really kill fifteen whales in a single day with a single harpoon? I cannot find any reference other than Melville.

Where is the Cape of Blanco? Who knows? There is a Cape Blanco in Oregon, but no Cape of Blanco.

"Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without--within, the villanous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom. Parallel meridians rudely pecked into the glass, surround these footpads' goblets. Fill to this mark, and your charge is but a penny; to this a penny more; and so on to the full glass--the Cape Horn measure, which you may gulp down for a shilling." I love the description of deceptive marketing, and proof that it is nothing new. But why a shilling? Well, it was not until 1857 that United States coins became the sole legal tender in this country, and in the first half of the 19th century United States were not very popular. Add to this that New Bedford was a port full of sailors from all over the world and it is not surprisingly that the price might be in a more universal currency, much as prices in cruise stops are often in dollars, or Euros, or yen. So the penny is probably a British penny, or one-twelfth of a shilling. Assuming the traditional "one-pound-equals-five-dollars" rule held back then, a British penny would be about two American cents, and a full glass would cost 25 American cents.

"Skrimshander" is an alternative spelling for "scrimshander", which is someone who practices scrimshaw, the art of carving on ivory, bone, or shells. In a whaling village, it would probably be almost exclusively on ivory.

"I told him that I never liked to sleep two in a bed; that if I should ever do so, it would depend upon who the harpooneer might be, and that if he (the landlord) really had no other place for me, and the harpooneer was not decidedly objectionable, why rather than wander further about a strange town on so bitter a night, I would put up with the half of any decent man's blanket." More of Melville's humor.

A monkey jacket is a waist-length jacket tapering to a point in the back and traditionally worn by sailors. A box coat is one that hangs loosely from the shoulders.

When Peter Coffin starts dropped hints about Ishmael's bedmate, Ishmael thinks, "I could not help it, but I began to feel suspicious of this 'dark complexioned' harpooneer. At any rate, I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did." There are undoubtedly some who use the second to re-enforce the idea that there is a homosexual relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, but it is clear in context that Ishmael here is more concerned that his bedmate have no concealed weapons.

A coffer-dam is a temporary watertight enclosure that can be pumped dry to allow the construction of piers, locks, etc. It can also be a watertight compartment on the side of a ship that can be pumped out to allow repairs below the water-line without entering dry dock.

Mt. Hecla (now spelled Hekla) is a volcano in Iceland. During the Middle Ages, it was called "the Gateway to Hell". (The entrance in the Spouter Inn seems reminiscent of the entrance to Dante's Hell, though that may be just because both books are in the same course.)

Curios are "rare, unusual, or intriguing objects"; Melville is credited by The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary with coining this word.

Coffin tells Ishmael, "I'll give you a glim in a jiffy." A glim is a candle, but I was surprised at the use of "in a jiffy"--somehow that sounds anachronistic. "I vum it's Sunday," must mean something like, "I think/suppose it's Sunday."

"Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner," is (I believe) an example of zeugma.

"Ignorance is the parent of fear ..." At first, one is tempted to say, a parent, perhaps, but the whalers fear the whales, no matter how knowledgeable they are about them. Or are they knowledgeable? In spite of all their familiarity with them, maybe the whole point is that there remains a permanent mystery about the nature of the whale.

"Going to his heavy grego, or wrapall, or dreadnaught, ..." A grego is "a short coat made of a coarse, tick fabric with a hood attached." A dreadnaught is "a garment made of very thick cloth, that can defend against storm and cold." I could not find a definition for wrapall, but I assume it is similar. The only differences seem to be whether or not the garment has a hood.

Ishmael refers to Queequeg's idol as a "Congo idol", but this is because he has previously said it was "exactly the color of a three days' old Congo baby." He knows that Queequeg comes from the South Seas.

Ishmael describes Queequeg's sacrifice to his idol: "... then blowing off the heat and ashes a little, he made a polite offer of it to the little negro [idol]. But the little devil did not seem to fancy such dry sort of fare at all; he never moved his lips." There's an echo of the story from the Apocrypha of Bel and the idol, in which Daniel proves to Cyrus that the grain supposedly consumed by the idol was really eaten by the priests. (He does this by scattering ashes around the idol--in the morning the footprints of the priests and their families were revealed.) And who else remembers leaving cookies and milk out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning finding they had been consumed?

After offering a sacrifice to it, and praying to it, Queequeg "took the idol up very unceremoniously, and bagged it again in his grego pocket as carelessly as if he were a sportsman bagging a dead woodcock." Melville gives us a real contrast in Queequeg's religion and in Western religions, and an ironic one. Most (all?) Western religions, which claim to eschew idolatry, have some sacred objects, be they transubstantiated wafers, holy books, or relics of some sort or other. Even statues of saints would not be treated so "unceremoniously." Yet Queequeg, who Ishmael probably assumes worships this actual idol, treats it more as a symbol. During the actual worship, it is endowed with sacred characteristics, but when the worship is over, it reverts to be a lump of wood. By this account, Queequeg is less an idolater than most Christians.

(The review in London's "John Bull" on October 25, 1851, says, "... it is all the greater pity, that he should have defaced his pages by occasionally thrusts against revealed religion which add nothing to the interest of his story, and cannot but shock readers accustomed to a reverent treatment of whatever is associated with sacred subjects." Well, that's the point!)

And Ishmael regrets his hasty judgment of Queequeg based on religion: "'You gettee in,' he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself--the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

This brings up another topic: the representation of pidgin in Moby Dick (and in literature in general). Pidgin is often represented by to suffix '-ee' attached to just about everything: nouns, verbs, adjectives, ... (The famous "No tickee, no washee" hits the nouns, but in "You gettee in" it is the verbs, and words like "biggee" abound for the adjectives.) But is this an accurate representation. Daniel Defoe used it (in Robinson Crusoe and other works), and Benjamin Franklin referenced it. Yet it is not clear that this suffix is at least typical of pidgins. Nevertheless, by Melville's time it had become standard in literature. (Similarly, dialect is often represented by strict phonetic spelling, even when that phonetic spelling represented the standard accepted pronunciation.)

CHAPTER 4: The Counterpane

Much has been made of: "Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. ... For though I tried to move his arm--unlock his bridegroom clasp--yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain." And certainly Melville does emphasize the similarity to a marriage bed (even to the "till death do us part" aspect), but it is just as possible that he does this to point out the incongruity of it all rather than hint at a secret homosexual subtext.

Ishmael comes from a family in which he has a stepmother and hence is a somewhat second-class child. This is similar to his Biblical namesake, who was the "illegitimate" son of Abraham and his servant Hagar. I put "illegitimate" in quotes because I a not sure the word really expresses the connotations in Biblical times. There was less stigma attached on men fathering children with their servants or salves, but those children were nonetheless lower in status than those whose mother was married to their father.

When Ishmael was sent to his room as a child, he feel asleep in the afternoon, he later woke up and relates, "I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness." This is just one of many references to black, or darkness, presumably to contrast with the whiteness of the whale. It is worth noting that while Biblical references connect darkness and blackness with evil, almost all the incidents of actual darkness and blackness in the novel are either benign or positive. The Spouter Inn is very dark, yet it provides a meal and a bed for Ishmael. Queequeg is dark, yet he is portrayed almost entirely in positive and is ultimately the means of Ishmael's salvation.

In the morning, Queequeg climbs naked under the bed where soon "he was hard at work booting himself; though by no law of propriety that I ever heard of, is any man required to be private when putting on his boots. But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition stage--neither caterpillar nor butterfly. He was just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manners. His education was not yet completed. He was an undergraduate ... If he had not been a small degree civilized, he very probably would not have troubled himself with boots at all; but then, if he had not been still a savage, he never would have dreamt of getting under the bed to put them on." One of the themes in Moby Dick is transition--as the Pequod travels further from home (and civilization), many of the crew undergo transitions in the reverse of Queequeg's supposed direction. Ishmael thinks of Queequeg as transitioning from primitive to civilized, while the crew goes from civilized to primitive.

When Ishmael sees Queequeg shaving with a harpoon, he thinks, "Queequeg, this is using Rogers's best cutlery with a vengeance. Afterwards I wondered the less at this operation when I came to know of what fine steel the head of a harpoon is made, and how exceedingly sharp the long straight edges are always kept." One might think Ishmael is referring to Wm. Rogers, who was a silversmith starting around 1825, and whose name is currently a trademark of the Oneida Company. (My parents' good silver was Wm. Rogers.) But harpoon points are steel, not silver.

At breakfast, Ishmael sees "a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards." "Bosky" means "having an abundance of bushes, shrubs, or trees."

CHAPTER 5: Breakfast

Ledyard is John Ledyard, Connecticut-born explorer who traveled with Captain Cook, crossed overland from Paris to Irkutsk and back, and died on an African expedition. Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer who made several expeditions into Africa. Each died on one of his voyages.

CHAPTER 6: The Street

Ishmael's description of cannibals--"savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh" reminds me of the lines from Antony & Cleopatra:

... on the Alps It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh, Which some did die to look on:      [Act I, Scene IV]

This is usually taken to refer to cannibalism. But there is also Jude 1:7: "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." (Recall that the preacher's text earlier was also from the first chapter of Jude.)

Ishmael refers to "the Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians." The best I can figure out, these are what we would call today (respectively) Fijians; Tongans; natives of Erromango Island, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides); natives of either Penang (Panang), Malaysia, or of Pango Pango (there is some dispute as to which Melville meant); and (possibly) a native of the New Hebrides. Some feel that Melville is just making these up, but given the bizarre spellings distant lands had in the 19th century, these could well be as indicated.

The green Vermonter "wears a beaver hat and swallow-tailed coat, girdled with a sailor-belt and sheath-knife. Here comes another with a sou'-wester and a bombazine cloak." The former is clearly improperly dressed for the rigors of a whaling ship (one can just imagine those long tails flapping in everyone's face in a brisk wind!), and bombazine is a dressy fabric, as opposed to the bearskin of Ishmael's "shaggy jacket".

CHAPTER 7: The Chapel

Modern readers might think that bearskin, like moleskin, is just a name for some fabric but, no, Ishmael's jacket is made from the skin (and fur, apparently) of an actual bear.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary says that "Hay-Seed" is a humorous name for a rustic used in the United States, but also gives the first use as being 1889. Moby Dick pre-dates that by almost forty years.

"Can Herr Alexander perform a feat like that?" This is proof that one must check every reference. I thought this was a reference to Alexander the Great, but apparently it refers to the German magician Johann Friedrich Alexander Heimbürger who, though now totally forgotten, was internationally famous at the time Moby Dick was written. The obvious analogy would be a reference to someone in 2150 reading what was a reference to "David Copperfield" and thinking it referred to Charles Dickens's character.

In New Bedford, people are so rich, "they have reservoirs of oil in every house, and every night recklessly burn their lengths in spermaceti candles." Spermaceti candles give a very steady, good light and don't melt or soften in hot weather, but were much more expensive than tallow candles or other cheaper forms of illumination.

Ishmael reports, "And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands." The reference to the effect of the women of Salem seems to be a veiled suggestion that they are (still) using witchcraft, but there is also a more mundane explanation. The Moluccas (now the Maluku Islands) were also known as the Spice Islands, they had exported spices for at least two thousand years, and Salem had become enormously successful in the spice trade. (In 1790 it was the sixth-largest city in the United States.) The odor Ishmael refers to would have been primarily pepper, nutmeg, and cloves.

Ishmael claims, "In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman's Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot." Apparently all the cannibals, savages, and South Sea islanders do not count in calculating this percentage.

After reading the marble tablets on the walls, commemorating those who died at seas, Ishmael muses, "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. As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here." There is much to say about this. One is that this still happens, not necessarily in accidents at sea, but in larger contexts. When we visited Latvia, for example, we visited a Jewish cemetery where all the headstones were either from before 1939 or after 1945. For any families left to these people, surely there was some consolation in that they knew where there relatives were buried, while those who lost relatives in the Holocaust often had no knowledge even of where they had died (or been killed).

In Turkey, at Gallipoli, we were told that it was contrary to Muslim custom to put names on anything but the actual headstone on the grave--for example the Turkish memorial at Gallipoli does not include any individual names. So these cenotaphs are not a universal thing.

The caves of Elephanta are seven caves (five Hindu and two Buddhist) near Mumbai (formerly Bombay) containing elaborate sculptures carved from the basalt of the caves. I do not think there are any cenotaphs, making Ishmael's statement a bit peculiar, sort of like saying that they might as well be in the Louvre as here.

"[A] universal proverb says of [the dead], that they tell no tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands" The Goodwin Sands is a ten-mile sand bank in the English Channel. Its location near major shipping routes means it is quite dangerous, and one estimate is that over two thousand vessels have been wrecked upon it, leaving their hulls and their crews as the "secrets."

Musing on these memorials, Ishmael asks, "[How] it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss." Indeed, this is a good question, but there is more to it than that. If in fact the afterlife is unspeakable bliss, then the Church has to come up with some reason for people to keep living. Why not just commit suicide and get there even faster? The argument is made that God hates suicide, but the reasoning is a bit contrived, and full of holes. One might claim that many of the martyrs knew that if they continued their activities they would be killed, and so in some sense they were committing suicide.

"Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems--aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet." A brevet is a warrant giving a temporary promotion to a commissioned officer, for example if he needs to fill a position that requires someone of higher rank.

"Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot." Is this Plato's Cave in reverse? In Plato's Cave people see shadows and believe them to be reality, while someone who has seen the bodies creating those shadows knows that the shadows are illusions. Yet one could as easily believe that the shadow--the soul--is the "real" entity, and the body merely a shell it wears. Certainly the churches emphasize the preservation of the spirit over that of the body in their glorification of martyrs. And again, Melville's use of "Jove" rather than "Zeus" might indicate an education that got through Latin but not Greek. Then again, there was a lot more emphasis on Roman values than Greek ones in the early days of the American republic.

CHAPTER 8: The Pulpit

What denomination is the Whaleman's Chapel? I suppose it could be a non-denominational chapel as one finds on military bases, but what of Father Mapple's honorific? Most Protestant denominations do not refer to preachers as "Father"; the only ones I know of that do so are the Anglicans and Episcopalians, and the chapel hardly seems to belong to either of them.

"For I was not prepared to see Father Mapple after gaining the height, slowly turn round, and stooping over the pulpit, deliberately drag up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec." Quebec (or rather, Quebec City) has had forts on its location since the 16th century, and is best known for the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759) in the Seven Years War when the English General Wolfe defeated the French General Montcalm. During the American Revolution, American troops attacked the fort, but failed to take it.

Another fortress is described: "Yes, for replenished with the meat and wine of the word, to the faithful man of God, this pulpit, I see, is a self-containing stronghold--a lofty Ehrenbreitstein, with a perennial well of water within the walls." Ehrenbreitstein Fortress is on the Rhine, opposite the city of Koblenz, originally built around 1000 C.E. However, its water supply is a series of cisterns capable of holding a three years' supply of water. The water itself comes from springs outside the walls.

There is an interesting story to go with, "[And] this bright face shed a distinct spot of radiance upon the ship's tossed deck, something like that silver plate now inserted into the Victory's plank where Nelson fell." Shortly after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the ship's carpenter made a round brass plaque that said "Here Nelson fell" with the date and nailed it to the quarterdeck. Some time in the middle of the 19th century it was removed and remained in private hands until it was recently auctioned. Melville probably did not know of its removal, and also mistakenly thought it was silver.

     "The ribs and terrors in the whale,
     Arched over me a dismal gloom,
     While all God's sun-lit waves rolled by,
     And lift me deepening down to doom.

     "I saw the opening maw of hell,
     With endless pains and sorrows there;
     Which none but they that feel can tell--
     Oh, I was plunging to despair.

     "In black distress, I called my God,
     When I could scarce believe him mine,
     He bowed his ear to my complaints--
     No more the whale did me confine.

     "With speed he flew to my relief,
     As on a radiant dolphin borne;
     Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone
     The face of my Deliverer God.

     "My song for ever shall record
     That terrible, that joyful hour;
     I give the glory to my God,
     His all the mercy and the power."

CHAPTER 9: The Sermon

This is not a pre-existing hymn, but one written by Melville for Moby Dick. Or rather, it is a poem written by Melville. However, it is supposedly based on the hymn "Death, and the Terrors of the Grave" of the Dutch Reformed Church (in which Melville was raised). Melville's hymn has been set to music by (among others) Philip Sainton for the 1956 John Huston film Moby Dick.

"We sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters." "Kelpy" could mean "covered with kelp", or seaweed, but a kelpy (a.k.a. kelpie) is also a Celtic water-spirit related to a horse, so there os a hint of the upernatural and mysterious in the term as well.

Father Mapple asks in his sermon, "Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low?" A "truck" is a "small piece of wood at the top of a mast through which halyards can be passed." The main-truck is the piece of wood at the top of the mainmast, the tallest mast on a ship. The "kelson" (or "keelson") is a piece of timber running along the keel but on the inside of the hull and timbers.

CHAPTER 10: A Bosom Friend

Describing Queequeg, he says, "He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington's head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." On the one hand, this builds up Queequeg as physiognomically similar to George Washington, and in Melville's time, cranial shape was considered a prime predictor of intelligence, character, and everything else essential about a person. On the other, "cannibalistically developed" reminds us that (in Ishmael's opinion, anyway) all the flesh on Queequeg's head was originally someone else's. And from that one thinks of the theological question: if on the Day of Judgement, everyone is resurrected in their re-assembled bodies, what about a cannibal whose body is entirely made up of other people's bodies? (Yes, this demonstrates a misunderstanding about how the biology of the body works, but that is the sort of theological debate people used to have.)

"Here was a man some twenty thousand miles from home, by the way of Cape Horn, that is--which was the only way he could get there--thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter." To get from Boston to Fiji around Cape Horn, one has to travel around the bulge of South America, so it is basically Boston to Recife (Brazil) to Cape Horn to Fiji, which is 4164-3247+5707 miles (according to one calculator), or 13,118 miles. Even allowing for varying from straight-line paths due to winds and currents, twenty thousand miles seems a high estimate.

We would speak of being "on the planet Jupiter" rather than "in the planet Jupiter." Given the low density of Jupiter, "in" may be more accurate, but I doubt Melville knew that.

"This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." Ishmael's disdain of Christian kindness must be based on events prior to the novel, since we have not seen anything (yet, anyway) that would account for his disillusionment.

"Thus I soon engaged his interest; and from that we went to jabbering the best we could about the various outer sights to be seen in this famous town." So then comes the engagement, then ...

"He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country's phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply." Even if Queequeg used the word "married", it seems odd that Ishmael would repeat it unless there were more to the ceremony than becoming the equivalent of blood brothers. And his description of Queequeg as a "simple savage" is belied by almost everything else he says about him. Or more accurately, when Ishmael is talking about Queequeg in offhand terms and generalizations, he describes him patronizingly, but when he talks about specific conversations, or actions, or beliefs, then Queequeg is his equal (if not his superior). (One example is the story of the punchbowl [later, Chapter 13, page 73], where When Ishmael is not thinking about what he is saying, he sees Queequeg as primitive and inferior, but Queequeg's story--and the fact that Ishmael relates it--indicates that when he is thinking about Queequeg he sees him entirely differently.)

It has long been argued (though probably not back to Melville's time) that knowing individuals belonging to a group makes it harder to negatively stereotype that group, and this seems to be the case with Melville. He starts out with the standard beliefs about South Sea Islanders everyone "knows," but as he gets to know Queequeg, most of them fall away.

"He made me a present of his embalmed head; took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine." Interestingly enough, Queequeg does not seem to expect Ishmael to give him a gift or to divide up his belongings.

"He then went about his evening prayers ... I deliberated a moment whether, in case he invited me, I would comply or otherwise. ... I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth--pagans and all included--can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?--to do the will of God--that is worship. And what is the will of God?--to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me--that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world."

One can argue that Ishmael is merely trying to justify what is easiest for him to do. Clearly what he is doing is prohibited by the Bible (in the first of the Ten Commandments, no less!), and all his justification cannot get around that. (He could presumably argue that Jesus has negated all the commandments of the Pentateuch, but that is a bit too deep for a man such as Ishmael.) Presumably, one might agree with Ishmael that God should not be jealous of a piece of wood, but the use of the word "jealous" reminds us of the constant characterization of God as "a jealous God" in the Old Testament. And if Ishmael is "a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church," he would be reminded of it too. But nevertheless, he does pose a valid theological question. Why should an all-powerful God care about this sort of thing? Asking God, of course, is likely to get you a non-answer such as , "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?" [Job 38:4-8] It makes for great rhetoric, but it is not really an answer.

"How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg--a cosy, loving pair." Well, okay, while the first couple of references to "loving" and "affectionate" might be chalked up to different times, I think it becomes apparent after a while that there is more going on than just friendship.

CHAPTER 11: Nightgown

The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. This is a philosophical expression of a physical phenomenon. If your house is set to 70° F year round, it will feel warm when you come in from outside in the winter, and cool in the summer. But it goes further than this, because Ishmael is also saying that one cannot appreciate what one has until one experiences its lack. Does anyone in a developed country appreciate electricity (and its corollaries, such as a hot meal and a hot shower) so much as when it returns after a one-week outage? The situation Ishmael describes is one in which one can have the benefits of a creature comfort simultaneously with the reminder of what one would miss without it.

"Because no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part." Melville returns again to the contrast of light and darkness, and again he prefers darkness to light.

"Be it said, that though I had felt such a strong repugnance to his smoking in the bed the night before, yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them. For now I liked nothing better than to have Queequeg smoking by me, even in bed, because he seemed to be full of such serene household joy then." What Ishmael is expressing is more than the love (a.k.a. "charity") of I Corinthians: "Love suffereth long, and is kind; ... Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. [I Corinthians 13:4,7] Ishmael does not endure Queequeg's smoking, or bear it, but actually wants it and enjoys it. He does not, as it were, "close his eyes and think of England."

CHAPTER 12: Biographical

"Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are." Ishmael is accurate here, Rokovoko is a fictional island. In British editions, the island is "Kokovoko" rather than "Rokovoko". Could this have been intentional on Melville's part to emphasize the impossibility of locating this island? Probably not, but I like the idea.

[Queequeg's] father was a High Chief, a King; his uncle a High Priest; and on the maternal side he boasted aunts who were the wives of unconquerable warriors. There was excellent blood in his veins--royal stuff; though sadly vitiated, I fear, by the cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth." Is Ishmael to some extent punning on the word "blood"? We speak of "royal blood" and "bad blood", and while it is true that people of Melville's time believed in such things as criminal tendencies being inherited, did they think that blood was the carrier? Maybe--it seems unlikely that there would be such insistence in keeping separate blood banks for whites and blacks during World War I if some people did not believe that blood was the carrier. On the other hand, there does seem something peculiar about the idea that Queequeg's royal blood has been diluted by the other humans he ate, especially since no one claims that the consumption of (non-human) animals dilutes royal blood.

"A Sag Harbor ship visited his father's bay ..." Sag Harbor, New York, is a village currently partly in Southampton and partly in East Hampton. It was extremely active in the whaling industry in the early 19th century.

Of Queequeg's consignment to manual labor in the outside world, Ishmael says, "But like Czar Peter content to toil in the shipyards of foreign cities, Queequeg disdained no seeming ignominy, if thereby he might happily gain the power of enlightening his untutored countrymen." In 1697 Peter the Great of Russia traveled to the Holland, where he lived incognito and worked in the shipyards there to learn enough to be able to establish a modern navy for Russia.

"He ... was fearful Christianity, or rather Christians, had unfitted him for ascending the pure and undefiled throne of thirty pagan Kings before him. But by and by, he said, he would return,--as soon as he felt himself baptized again. For the nonce, however, he proposed to sail about, and sow his wild oats in all four oceans." Again, Ishmael reverses the usual prejudices--while most of his Christian acquaintances would believe that extended contact with "savages" or "pagans" or "heathens" would defile them, Ishmael finds that Queequeg has the same concern about spending too much time with Christians.

There is, of course, an irony to Queequeg's statement that he will be ready to return after being "baptized again"--that is indeed Queequeg's fate, though his return to Rokovoko afterwards is questionable.

The four oceans Ishmael knew were the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic Oceans. In 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization recognized a fifth ocean, the Southern Ocean, which is all water below 60$deg; south.

<-  Previous  |  Next  ->

Evelyn C. Leeper
(eleeper@optonline.net)