The nineteenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.
Here we are in the final full week of the Moby-Dick Big Read! Tomorrow the last chapter, Chapter 135, will be uploaded. Then, on Tuesday, 29th January 2013, a reading of the Epilogue will complete the project.
This week’s readings have brought us to the penultimate day of the three-day chase of the White Whale, two long chapters of action, rage, terror in Melville’s vivid prose. We’ve also been up close to the emotions of the men on board, from the grief of Pip and despair of Starbuck to further insight into the violent throb of Ahab’s obsession.
My favourite image this week is the above photograph 80deg north by Alex Hartley which accompanied Chapter 131. I love its intimate glimpse into the off-kilter world of being at sea.
The Story This Week
The Pequod meets the tragedy-stricken ship the Rachel (128). Later, we see more of the relationship between Ahab and Pip (129). The captain surveys his ship, inscrutable under the brow of his hat, until a sea-bird swoops and flies off with it (130). The Pequod then meets another beleagured ship: this time, the Delight, who has had a terrible encounter with the White Whale (131). Peaceful weather leads Ahab into a lament about his life (132). At long last, the crew of the Pequod give chase to Moby Dick (133 & 134).
Chapter 128: The Pequod Meets the Rachel, Read by Alice Herrick. Artist: Gavin Turk
English artist Alice Herrick, who also contributed art for Chapter 104, reads this chapter where the Pequod meets Nantucket ship the Rachel. The Rachel has recently lost men in a whale hunt, including the captain’s son. The captain, whom Ahab knows, beseeches him to join the search for the missing crew. Ahab refuses.
Like its Biblical namesake, the Rachel has lost its children. The last line of this chapter (‘She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not’) closely follows a line in the King James version about the Biblical woman Rachel in Matthew 2:18.
Chapter 129: The Cabin, Read by Rev. Nick McKinnel. Artist: Darren Lago
Read by Plymouth church rector and Anglican Bishop of Crediton, this chapter is a sad account of Ahab and Pip. The first line describes a a moving moment when Ahab walks off and the little boy ‘catches him by the hand to follow’. But Ahab asks the boy to stay safely below deck as the hunt of Moby Dick draws near. The short chapter closes with a somehow creepy image of the sea seeming to crowd into Pip alone in the dark cabin.
Perhaps Ahab really does have the boy’s safety in mind, but mostly he appears to be carefully tending to the flame of his obsession. He tells the boy:
The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady.
Over at patell.org, Prof. Patell draws out the way Melville has modelled Ahab and Pip on King Lear and his fool in Shakespeare.
Chapter 130: The Hat, Read by Diana Speed. Artist: Graham Day
BBC radio announcer Diana Speed lends her professional voice to this account of Ahab and his hat. The mood on board the Pequod takes a very solemn turn in this chapter: ‘all humor, forced or natural, vanished’. Ahab watches his crew unstintingly now, inscrutable beneath the brow of his hat. There is also a change in Fedallah, who has an ‘added, gliding strangeness’ and, for all he seems to influence and guide Ahab, the power balance is made clear in this chapter: ’Ahab seemed an independent lord; the Parsee but his slave… For be this Parsee what he may, all rib and keel was solid Ahab.’
Ahab takes it upon himself to keep watch, impatient to see the White Whale. He instructs Starbuck to hold his safety rope, which seems a curious choice given the horrible tension between the two men. Looks like Ahab sees clearly that he will get his way aboard this ship.
Ishmael takes a moment, sounding more like Ishmael of old, to step in and tell us about the use of ropes to secure sailors in their perch. Basically, the rope securing the sailor has to be especially watched ‘Because in such wilderness of running rigging, whose various different relations aloft cannot always be infallibly discerned by what is seen of them at the deck’. A treacherous situation known to anyone who has ventured into the tangle of cables at the back of their telly and managed to unplug the wrong thing.
When Ahab is ‘perched aloft’ he is attacked by a bird that wants his hat. It succeeds in plucking it from his head and flying off with it, leading to one of my favourite images in the book:
Ahab’s hat was never restored; the wild hawk flew on and on with it; far in advance of the prow: and at last disappeared; while from the point of that disappearance, a minute black spot was dimly discerned, falling from that vast height into the sea.
Ishmael details the symbolic significance of this, referring to an incident in Roman history where a man became king after an eagle stole then replaced his hat. No such luck for Ahab.
Chapter 131: The Pequod Meets the Delight, Read by Daniel Allen. Artist: Alex Hartley
I can’t track down this reader – as always, get in touch if you can help out!
The Pequod meets the Delight, a Nantucket ship that has recently hunted the White Whale and was nearly destroyed by it. For me, the skeletal imagery used about its splintered boats like the ‘half-unhinged, and bleaching skeleton of a horse’ has echoes of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner again (a more explicit reference has already been made to this in Chapter 52: The Albatross).
While still in the gam with the Pequod, the Delight begins disposing of the bodies of its men killed by Moby Dick by throwing them overboard. Ahab suddenly sees that his own ship will be polluted by this action and urges the Pequod to sail on. However, ‘some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism’.
Chapter 132: The Symphony, Read by Cerys Matthews. Artist: Martin Thomas
Welsh singer/songwriter Cerys Matthews, of Catatonia fame, gives a heartfelt, moving reading of this remarkable chapter where Ahab is nearly overwhelmed by his existence and his past.
A spell of good weather sends him into bleak contemplation. I loved the imagery here, of Ahab against the clear blue sky and the idea only man can become old, compared to the ‘immortal infancy’ of the world. Ahab weeps, and Starbuck goes to him. He tells the first mate he is weary and desolate, and ‘intolerably old’. He thinks of his wife and son at home. Starbuck is deeply moved: perhaps Ahab has a ‘noble soul’ after all! Once more, he urges the captain to turn back. But the glimmer of hope is dashed. Ahab closes up and will speak only now of fate, and how he must hunt the whale. Starbuck is ‘blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair’.
Although the twisted and broken captain is sad, this whole sequence exacerbated my own lack of sympathy for the Pequod’s captain. All of the moments in the novel where he shows compassion or feeling, as here, only makes his narcissistic, relentlessly damaging behaviour more grotesque.
He seems all ego, brittle and propped up on this demented quest that he has given himself. It is especially telling that, thinking back over the privation of 40 years at sea, he exclaims: ‘for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep!’
Except: the war is in his mind. Although his job is a difficult one (and often profound, if we listen to Ishmael) framing it as war, – that theatre of grand epic and noble heroes - says more about Ahab than his profession. He seems caught in an ego trap, a ‘throwing good money after bad’ situation. It seems that if Ahab were to abandon his quest now, his ego could not sustain it. Perhaps because then, he’d only be a sad, old captain who should have returned home long ago.
I wish Starbuck would act against the captain, but his passivity seems as fated as Ahab’s deadly monomania.
On a lighter note, I don’t understand what’s happening with Ahab’s hat. Specifically: he has one again, despite losing it to an angry sea-hawk in Chapter 130. I guess he came prepared with more than one hat, but that makes the fact he lost one a bit less dramatic, don’t you think?
Chapter 133: The Chase – First Day, Read by Kerry Shale. Artist: John Chilver
A consumate reading from Kerry Shale, who lends his professional talents as an actor and voice artist to the thrilling first day of the hunt. These are three chapters I have been most tempted to rush through in one sitting, at my own reading pace. However, they are, of course, also the three most suited to the once-a-day schedule, each being set on one of three consecutive days!
There is so much in this chapter: frenetic action, meaningful interactions between the men, remarkable imagery and description, aphoristic wisdom. However, I want to keep my thoughts on it brief today, since this is an account of my own first reading, and my first reading of this chapter was very much focused on the sheer thrill and suspense of the hunt.
It is Ahab who spies the whale. The doubloon, which he nailed to the mast (Chapter 36) for a reward to the man who first spotted his nemesis, is now Ahab’s own. The ship gives chase. Soon the captain is engaged in close battle with Moby Dick, who tears one of their boats in two with his jaws before powering away from them. The chapter ends with the men keeping watch for his spout and biding their time till the next morning. Ahab promises gold once again to the man who next raises Moby-Dick.
The descriptions of the white whale here, especially when it curls up out of the water from below Ahab’s boat like a nightmare, are breathtaking.
There is a footnote in this chapter that isn’t in the recording. It comes after ‘vindictively tossing their shivered spray still higher into the air’ and you can read it here (scroll to the bottom for the text starting ‘Note: This motion…’).
Chapter 134: The Chase – Second Day, Read by Roger Allam. Artist: Sean Landers
Another excellent professional reading, this time by English actor Roger Allam doing a superb American accent. I recognise him as Peter Mannion MP from UK comedy The Thick Of It, but he has had a long and successful career on stage too. The art that accompanies this reading is Around The World Alone (The Gloucesterman) by Sean Landers, which was used in a lot of the promotional material for the project.
Another thrilling day of the three-day hunt of Moby-Dick. Again, they battle the whale and Ahab is injured – his false leg is shattered. Starbuck, whom Ishmael notes ‘thus far had been the foremost to assist him’ helps steady his captain. Ahab makes an angry comment about having such a ‘craven mate’ … but claims to have been referring to his body in relation to his spirit.
After the whale has escaped again and the men have recovered from the chaos (‘the wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils’), the men see that Fedallah is missing. He cannot be found. Ahab is distressed, but carries on. He also reminds Starbuck that he will not be deflected from his fate, and says the ugliest thing about himself:
Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ‘Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs.
Ugh. An image more suited to an 80s body horror movie than Ahab’s supposedly noble quest. The chapter ends with dusk falling and Ahab keeping watch for the morning. Ominously, he recalls that the Parsee prophesied he’d be seen again before Ahab could die. The captain is baffled by this and vows to get to the bottom of the strange, conflicting information.
There’s an extra sentence in my paper copy of the book compared to this recording. In my edition, when Ahab is back on board after the encounter with Moby-Dick, after he says ‘… I account no living bone of mind one jot more than me, than this dead one that’s lost’ he says this:
Nor white whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being.
Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. On Tuesday 29th January 2013 I will post about my experience of listening to the final two readings. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC webpage here.