MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 4-6]

Welcome to Part 2 of this series on Moby-Dick. In this lecture we will discuss chapters 4-6.

In chapter 4, Ishmael awakens to find Queequeg’s arm draped over him. This reminds him of an unsettling phenomenon which he experienced in his childhood. His relation of the childhood experience makes for a chilling ghost story. “At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it—half steeped in dreams—I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in utter darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.”

In chapter 5, the lodgers of the Inn sit down to breakfast together. Ishmael notes the strange behavior of the other sailors. “After we were all seated at the table, and I was preparing to hear some good stories about whaling; to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence. And not only that, but they looked embarrassed. Yes, here were a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas—entire strangers to them—and duelled them dead without winking; and yet, here they sat at a social breakfast table—all of the same calling, all of kindred tastes—looking round as sheepishly at each other as though they had never been out of sight of some sheepfold among the Green Mountains.”

Ishmael’s expectation that the sailors would be talkative about their travels, is ultimately misguided. The disparity between expectations and reality is a recurring motif throughout the novel; and it is relevant to the theme of interpretation that was discussed in part one of this series. As Ishmael forms conjectures about the meaning of the oil painting hanging on the wall of the Spouter-Inn, and the reader forms conclusions regarding the meaning of the novel and the meaning of life, Melville notes that oftentimes our conclusions about a subject are mistaken, and that we discover truth only through experience. Is there life after death? Is there a God? Only those who have experienced death and have experienced God know for certain.

In chapter 6, Ishmael wanders about the town of New Bedford after finishing his breakfast at the Spouter-Inn. He is amused by the mannerisms and behavior of those he refers to as country dandies. “In bespeaking his sea-outfit, he orders bell-buttons to his waistcoats; straps to his canvas trowsers. Ah, poor Hay-Seed! how bitterly will burst those straps in the first howling gale, when thou art driven, straps, buttons, and all, down the throat of the tempest.” Once again, Melville highlights the difference between expectations and reality. The country dandies expect whaling to be different than it actually is, and suffer the loss of a new pair of trowsers as a result. What might we suffer as a result of our own mistaken beliefs? Is it something as insignificant as the cost of a few pairs of clothes, or something much more meaningful?

Chapter 4
“At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it—half steeped in dreams—I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.”

Chapter 5
“After we were all seated at the table, and I was preparing to hear some good stories about whaling; to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence. And not only that, but they looked embarrassed. Yes, here were a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas—entire strangers to them—and duelled them dead without winking; and yet, here they sat at a social breakfast table—all of the same calling, all of kindred tastes—looking round as sheepishly at each other as though they had never been out of sight of some sheepfold among the Green Mountains.”

Chapter 6
“In bespeaking his sea-outfit, he orders bell-buttons to his waistcoats; straps to his canvas trowsers. Ah, poor Hay-Seed! how bitterly will burst those straps in the first howling gale, when thou art driven, straps, buttons, and all, down the throat of the tempest.”

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