MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 1-3]

Author E.L. Doctorow once wrote, “I can assure you Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said modern American literature began with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby-Dick, the book that swallowed European civilization whole.”

In this series we will present a summary and explore the themes of arguably the greatest novel ever written, Moby Dick. This first lecture will focus on chapters 1-3.

Chapter 1 is titled, Loomings, and it begins with the most famous opening line in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael is the narrator of the novel, and he promises to recount the tale of a whaling voyage that he went on several years ago.

The first chapter introduces the main philosophical themes of the novel. One such theme is Free Will. Ishmael does not believe that free will exists. He concludes that Fate compelled him to go on the whaling voyage, that it was his destiny. He writes, “Doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago… I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.”

Ishmael also discusses the symbolism of the ocean and the land. The land is solid and bounded, very much like a prison. Describing the people he sees walking along the shores of the island of Manhattan, Ishmael states, “these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.”

The ocean, on the other hand, is unbounded and mysterious. It symbolizes the ungraspable meaning and truth of the cosmos. Ishamel reflects, “Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

Chapter 2 is titled, The Carpet-Bag. In this chapter, the story of the whaling voyage begins. Ishmael wanders about the town of New Bedford in search of lodgings for the night. It is a cold December evening, and Ishmael thinks about the poor souls who cannot afford shelter from the harsh elements. “Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings… what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator; yea, ye gods! go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?”

Eventually, Ishmael walks into the Spouter-Inn, which is the title of Chapter 3. Upon entering the Inn, Ishmael notices an oil painting, which is hanging on a wall. The painting itself is obscure, and it is difficult to determine the precise meaning of the image. “Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain.”

Ishmael’s attempt to deduce the meaning of the painting is analogous to the reader’s attempt to deduce the meaning of the novel and its many symbols. On a cosmological scale, it is analogous to man’s search for meaning in life. Like Ishmael, who has difficulty interpreting the meaning of the oil painting, we have difficulty determining the meaning of life. We often arrive at unsatisfactory answers, but we continue the search nevertheless because there is a sort of sublimity that freezes us and compels us to seek understanding.

At the Spouter-Inn, Ishamel rents a room for the night. The landlord tells him that he will be sharing a bed with a harpooner named Queequeg, who is currently trying to sell one of his shrunken heads in town. At first, Ishmael is naturally apprehensive about the prospect of sharing a bed with Queequeg, but he reasons, “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.” Ishmael’s openness to different religions and cultures is consistent with the idea that there is no one right way of living. Just as the oil painting has many different interpretations, but no right one, so too are there many different ways of living, but no one right way.

Chapter 1
“This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” [Immortal longings – Antony and Cleopatra]

“Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” [fear of the unknown]

“Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” [ungraspable meaning of life, ungraspable truth – tormenting]

“Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” [no free will]

“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!” [cheerful damnation]

“Wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago.” [no free will]

“Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces—though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” [no free will]

Chapter 2
“Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper—(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.
But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator; yea, ye gods! go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?
Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.” [tepid tears of the orphans – Dives (the rich capitalist) thrives on the sufferings of the poor. Frozen sighs – lack of true empathy, cold, callous, self-serving]

Chapter 3
“On one side hung a very large oilpainting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose.” [analogous to the novel/ocean/moby dick]

“Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain.” [Plato’s Form of the Good – once understood, we will understand the rest]

“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.” [unjustified prejudices]

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