Sunday, October 11, 2009

Autumn Of Dick - Week 1 - Chapters 1-9

Nine chapters into Moby Dick, Melville is still setting the scene. The narrator, Ishmael, has grown bored in Manhattan, and relocated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the hopes of finding some excitement on a maritime expedition of some kind. When he arrives, the town is salty and quiet, and Ishmael looks for an inn in which to spend the night. Passing on the first two places he finds, because they are too nice and expensive-looking, he stumbles into a sketchy inn with no vacancies, but where the inn keeper allows him to share a bed with a then-absent, unnamed mariner. The mariner - who we come to know as Queequeg - returns to the inn very late at night and is understandably shocked to find another man sleeping in his bed. Queequeg's physique, tattoos, and creole dialect, as well as the disturbing shrunken heads he carries, startle Ismael. The inn keeper introduces them, both men realize they have nothing to be afraid of, and doze off. Ishmael wakes up to find that he has never slept sounder in his life, and also that Queequeg's arm is thrown over him in an intimate fashion. Surely these details will prove significant down the road, but how so? I've read enough books to tell that Melville is foreshadowing all sorts of terrible things, but he's not giving anything away. I'm hooked.

Scattered thoughts:

-Isn't it funny to think that, in the 1840's, somebody might have left Manhattan and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts in search of a good time?

-In the first couple of chapters, Ishmael tells the reader that he is bored, and is looking for an adventure, and believes that he might find one of the sees. To a modern reader - if not to Melville's contemporaries - this practically screams "Warning!!! Be careful what you wish for, you just might get more than you bargained for!" It strikes us as a rather obvious bit of foreshadowing. Would readers in the 1840s have recognized it as such, or has it only become cliche in the intervening 150+ years? Do any of you have an opinion about this?

-I love Melville's style, heavy as it is on allegory, symbolism, and foreshadowing. Its clear that William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy read this novel closely - the parralels to McCarthy's Blood Meridian are striking. What do you think of the writing style? Heavy in a good way, or just . . . heavy?


Mara said...

Scattered thoughts of my own:

1. It's amazing how little actual "story" we get in the first 50 pages of this novel. Ishmael hasn't even found a ship to work on yet at this point! A modern editor would've cut these 50 pages down to about 5, if that, so that the plot can begin in earnest. But Melville apparently feels no pressure to get on with it. It leaves me wondering why - was Melville just so famous by then that he could write whatever he wanted and have it turn a profit? Was it that readers in 1851 were just used to a more meandering prose style? Or are these pages, this particular leisurely setup, essential in some way to the at-sea plot we know has to commence?

2. Queequeeg.

So, Queequeeg is interesting in a couple of ways. First, there's the homoerotic aspect of Queequeeg and Ishmael's relationship. I just cannot buy that these two men are just nice platonic little bed buddies. There is just too much physical contact involved (the cuddling, the smoking together in bed, the legs touching, etc), for this relationship to be strictly platonic. (see Chs. 10-11; a little beyond the assigned reading for this week, but I read it, so I figured I'd talk about it). The real question is, what is the point of introducing a relationship like this into the novel? Where is it going?

At this point, I see that it sort of parallels the desire for novelty of experience which drives Ishmael to seek employment as a sailor on a whaling ship in the first place. Queequeeg is so radically different from everyone and everything else in the story at this point; possibly the idea is that Ishmael is the sort of person who is powerfully drawn to unique and interesting persons and things.

Alternately, it might just be a way to bind Queequeeg (who will eventually be on the whaling ship with Ishmael) together with our protagonist, so as to wring extra emotion out of any situation putting either or both of them in danger (rather like Sam and Frodo, except that Queequeeg isn't exactly the sort of homey, familiar influence Sam was on Frodo).

3. Jonah and the whale.

So, Jonah gets ordered by God to go preach to Nineveh and for some reason he doesn't want to do that, so he boards a ship bound for Tarshish. A storm arises and it becomes clear that said storm is Jonah's fault, sort of, for running away from his duty, and that the storm will cease if Jonah is tossed overboard. The sailors resist for awhile, but eventually toss him anyway, and a whale swallows Jonah whole. Jonah repents, and God has the whale regurgitate Jonah out onto a beach.

Like Jonah, Ishmael says he sets out to sea because it is a "damp, drizzly November" in his soul. Though he doesn't come right out and say it, it seems possible, even probable, that Ishmael, like Jonah, is avoiding some duty by going to sea. It remains to be seen how well the rest of Moby-Dick will parallel the Jonah story. I'd guess that there will be parallels and plays on the Jonah theme to come.

Being in the belly of the beast also seems like a relevant theme here. At one point (Ch. 9) Father Mapple actually likens Jonah's cramped room in the ship to his later predicament in the innards of the whale. In light of this, it seems relevant that Queequeeg is a cannibal.

Also interesting is the fact that apparently, according to Jewish legend (thank you Wikipedia), at the end of all conflict Leviathan (a great monster created by God on the fifth day of creation) will be slain and its flesh served to the righteous.

4. The Odyssey.

Although I haven't yet seen anything that clearly smacks of Homer yet, it's unavoidable. One can't write a big great epic novel about a sea-quest without acknowledging or paralleling the Odyssey in some way. So I'm waiting for something Odyssian to show up.

8yearoldsdude said...

Jonah and the Whale are going to show up real soon.

I have to wonder about how prevalent the idea of the noble savage was in the 19th century (is it Rousseauvian? I am a biologist). Are we just establishing that Queequeg is kind and gentle (maybe even innocent in some way) rather than homoerotic.

also, it is only the first 50 pages, I think we may just be experiencing some establishing shots about the peculiar experience of whaling life. Thrown together with savages, quirky sleeping arrangements, moments of panic that give way to calm.

Ellen said...

The homoeroticism was a bit surprising, but what really shocked me was that Ishmael seemed so sheltered. We know that he's already been on merchant ships, but somehow he's never met someone of Queequeg's race, whatever it is? And he's never had to share a bunk with another sailor? Are we supposed to take from this that he is in way over his head, or that he believed he wasn't sheltered when in fact he was? Either way, I thought he handled that meeting pretty poorly for a seasoned sailor who might have had ample opportunity to be thrown together with odd characters before.

Mara, I agree with you that there isn't much story in the first fifty pages, but I didn't mind it. I had expected to get bogged down in the style and the story much earlier, so I found the un-arduousness (go with it) of the setting to be pleasant. Then again, this is my second reading and I retained almost nothing about these opening chapters from the first time, so it's probably a false sense of security.

As for the foreshadowing, I think it's a device of suspense that looks obvious to us because we've seen it so much but wouldn't have necessarily been as blatant to readers of the time. Even when it gets as heavy as the minister's preaching, it's a spooky preamble -- like the opening murder in a horror movie.

Wade Garrett said...

Ellen - I too was expecting to get tangled up in the style. Although its very 1840's in some ways, its clearer and more readable than I expected it to be.

Mara said...

1. I'm also reading this for the second time. I actually remember the first 50 pages to be pretty easy reading in comparison to the middle sections of the novel.

2. Ellen, I have to disagree with you regarding Melville's foreshadowing. I don't think it was at all an unknown or uncommon device at the time of Melville's writing. Other writers, such as Austen, had used it in the novel prior to Melville's writing, and dramatists, like Shakespeare, had discovered the utility of the device more than a century before. I'd argue that Melville actually wants to lay his foreshadowing right out in the open rather than keep it subtle. I think he wants us to think about the symbols and ideas he's bringing up, and he's not afraid to tell us so directly. (In fact, he's going to devote entire chapters to various symbols, ideas, and practices throughout the novel). So its blatancy, as you call it, is, I think, entirely deliberate.