Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 3: Meeting Ahab

(Chapter 28, if you’re counting.)


I’d wager that a person who hasn’t read Moby-Dick, but who’s heard of it, can tell you one thing about Ahab: he has a peg leg, made of whalebone. However, for Ishmael, Ahab’s “grim aspect” is so engrossing that “for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood.” In other words, Ahab’s missing leg is not his defining physical feature, at least to the men he works with.

The ship’s mates are uncomfortable too, for “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe” (135). Indeed, Ishmael’s first impression is similar to the impression of torment given in this passage; at first glance, Ahab “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness” (134).

I find this juxtaposition of images — the Christ-figure crucified and the heretic at the stake — intriguing, especially since my first reading of the stake comparison relied on my image of Joan of Arc — until I realized that she wasn’t canonized until 1920.  With these two images, Melville and Ishmael provide us with a foreshadowing of Ahab’s later character development; we’ll find him to be brave, stoic, even, but also possessed with the pursuit of unrighteous revenge.

I’ll leave off my musing with another contrasting set of images: Ahab as a tree.

In the first, his scarring (which happened before his encounter with the white whale) is compared to the mark of a lightning strike on a great tree, in such a way that I thought of Ahab as nature’s inertia embodied, markable but not really changeable in essence (was his monomania brought on by Moby Dick’s attack, or was the capacity for madness always lurking within him?).

In the second, the possibility for softness in Ahab’s character emerges without diminishing his otherness from his fellow men.


[Ahab’s scar] resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. (134)


For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods, even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (136)

What do you remember most about Ahab?

Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 2

William Giraldi’s essay on Herman Melville-as-reader has been making the rounds on the web this week, appearing first in the LA Times and then elsewhere (Maria Popova tweeted about it; A Piece of Monologue ran it), including Salon, which is where I ran across it.


It’s a good piece, though I could do without the put-downs of genre fiction and some of the vitriol (Mr. Giraldi is known in literary circles for his excoriating review of two Alix Ohlin books. His point in this essay boils down to: The drivel that’s published these days flows from the keys of those who do not read (Mr. Giraldi’s closing line is “So put down your pen awhile. Pick up Moby Dick [sic].) Melville, like other great writers, stood on the shoulders of giants. In order to write well, one must read well, and often, and deeply. (I’d make the same argument about living well, but that’s for another time). He points to Milton, one of those authors Melville grapples with most intensely, and rightly so. Earlier this week, though, I was thinking about another kind of literacy, or literary awareness, as I read Chapter 9 of Moby-Dick (“The Sermon”).

Though I’m not a believer, I’m grateful for an elementary education that gave me familiarity with Bible stories and concepts. It’s incredibly helpful, in all kinds of contexts, to understand references to Judith and Holofernes, for example, or the wedding feast at Cana.

Or Jonah and the Whale. Without the background music of Biblical phrasing in mind, it would have been difficult for me to appreciate just how brilliant this chapter is. Father Mapple tailors his sermon for the sea-going folk and sea-watchers in his congregation, conjuring up the details of Jonah’s cabin (“a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room” [50]) to make the text come alive. In embroidering an old tale to reach a new audience, he becomes a figure of the novelist. And when he ends his sermon, he’s shaken by his awesome responsibility.

Here’s a little gem from the sermon: “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep” (54).

Musings on Moby-Dick

Here’s a little story about me and Moby-Dick. (Since Ahab’s Wife is up next in the Literary Wives series, I thought I should probably have a look at Moby-Dick; it’s been a few years. I’ll be posting about it every once in awhile as I go along.)

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don't have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don’t have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Now, there was a time when I hated Moby-Dick with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. That was when I was about eleven.

You see, my parents were and are big believers in reading aloud. My Mom read aloud to us when we were little, and when she went back to work and Dad started staying home,  he read aloud individually to us until we left for college (though less in high school when extracurriculars took up more of our time). He chose books in consultation with us, so my brother might be listening to Ivanhoe an hour after Dad read “The Twin Brothers” to our younger sister.

It was a delightful tradition. We’d settle into the comfy chairs in the living room, and Dad would read in his perfectly cadenced voice while I listened, sometimes working on whatever craft project I was trying out that week (never with success, I might add). When I was about eleven, we decided to settle in for a challenge: Moby-Dick.

We hated it. We hated the chapter on Cetology and the long philosophical disquisitions and the drawn-out plot. For years we said it would have been a great story if it had been fifty pages, not the 500 of our hardcover version. We hated it so much that eventually we decided to finish it just so we could say we had done it — we had killed Moby-Dick.

To this day, of all the books Dad read to me, it’s the one I remember best, the one we joke about the most often. Dad gave me the Cliffs Notes to the novel as a Christmas present one year, even though I hated the book so much that I avoided any American Lit course that mentioned it in the course description — and I was an English major!

And yet, something in the back of my brain needled me, like a tooth-pick-sized harpoon. What if I hadn’t given it a fair shot? What if I was too young when I read it? Why did other people (including one of my uncles, a brilliant English teacher) like it so much?

So, more than ten years after I’d read the book with my dad, I tried again. And I loved it. Because it’s musical. Because it’s exciting. Because it’s funny.

No, really. It is.

Consider the very first chapter. We all know the famous first three words, but what follows is a riot. Ishmael decides to put to sea not because the ocean calls to his soul (that bit comes later), but because he’s hilariously, hyperbolically depressed:

whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can (3).

See? Told you it was funny. Now if only I could convince my dad.

What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?