Saturday, October 24, 2009

Autumn of Dick - Week 3 - Chapters 20-32

I'll say this much about Herman Melville - the man knew how to foreshadow. This week's reading begins with Ishmael and Queequeg noting what appear to be last-minute preparations aboard the Pequod, and waking up early the next morning to board the ship, knowing they may not return to land for two or three years. They wake up early to a very foggy day and, approaching the boat, see what appears to be the hazy outline of a group of sailors boarding the Pequod. And yet, when Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, these sailors are nowhere to be seen, and indeed the entire ship is still and quiet, its sailors still sleeping below the deck. Its an eerie scene, and one, the reader must assume, portends bad things.

Ishmael and Queequeg meet Starbuck, the ship's first mate, a soft-spoken Quaker who oozes competence out of every pore. "I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale" Starbuck says, suggesting his wisdom and "appropriate fear" of the challenges that lay before the crew of the Pequod. Stubb and Flask, the ship's second and third mates, each seem like reliable sailors.

For the first couple of days out of port, the ship's captain, Ahab, is nowhere to be seen, and Starbuck runs things while Ahab lingers in his cabin. His entrance, when it finally occurs, is one of the more memorable entrances I've read - his build is imposing, and he has a white, lightning-shaped scar that runs down his face and, it is implied, the entire length of his body. Ishmael knows that Ahab lost a leg in a whale attack, but is startled to see Ahab limp around on a prosthetic limb made out of 'ivory' taken from a whale's jaw. So far, pretty bad-ass. But some things about Ahab don't quite seem right. Ahab laments the fact that smoking his pipe - once a favorite past-time of his - no longer brings him any pleasure, and, descending a ladder to his cabin at the end of the day, Ahab states that it feels to him as if he is descending into his tomb.

Then, the narrative takes a sideways turn, as Melville begins a series of non-fictional descriptions of the important of sperm whale oil, the whaling industry in general, and the attributes of the various different types of whales. This break delays the seemingly obvious conflict between Starbuck - the cautious sailor who values the safety of his crew and seeks a profitable voyage, and Ahab, who no longer enjoys life's simple pleasures, sees death on the horizon, and, though it hasn't been fully explained quite yet, seeks revenge on the whale that seperated his leg from his body. This week's reading ends as trouble is beginning to brew.

Random thoughts:

-At first, I disliked the way in which the non-fiction chapters slowed Melville's impressive narrative momentum. But, the more I thought about it, the more I figured that, in the days before television and National Geographic, the common person - even the common educated person - may not have known very much about whales, for instance their size, or the value of their oil, or the fact that they are mammals instead of fish. These chapters may very well have been necessary in the 1850's. Today, they annoy us like an extra long commercial break in the middle of an otherwise gripping television show.

-The founders of Starbucks originally wanted to name their company Pequod's, but then decided that nobody would want to drink a beverage from a company that sounded too much like "pee." Its hard to say that they made the wrong decision, but at the same time . . . come on. Besides, Peet's coffee is one of the most beloved brands in the country!

1 comment:

8yearoldsdude said...

I am very curious about these chapters. How much narrative voice is involved in these chapters. and what is their purpose. Why does Melville have Ishmael make the morons error of categorizing whales as fish rather than mammals but then proceed to make a detailed and accurate account of nearly every cetacean? What is achieved by this? are we meant to understand that he is smart and insightful but not trained academically. why bother with this?