This week, we have seen a lot of Ahab and his man Fedallah, and there have been several vivid, fierce passages that key into this novel’s obsessions with religion, fire, fate and prophecy, culminating in the the thrilling events of Chapter 119: The Candles. As we enter the last few weeks, I’ve found myself enjoying the engagement with the themes and symbols that have emerged. And, since we’re into the seventeenth week of readings, I took the time to go back over passages of the novel to contemplate what I know of Ahab, our multi-voiced narrator Ishmael and all the main characters of the ship. There is just so much going on in this book that the more I read of it, and the more I think about it, the more it opens up new avenues of thought and detail, even on a first reading.
The haunting image above is Horizon Line by Sarah Chapman, which accompanied the reading for Chapter 120 (I think this is the same Sarah Chapman who is Arts Director for Plymouth Arts).
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation charity also tweeted a gorgeous photograph of a group of sperm whales at sea taken by Eric Cheng. There is a whole series of these photos – you can see 20 of them at X-ray Mag here. Several of them are of groups of whales, which reminds me of the ‘caravan’ of mothers and calves in Chapter 87.
The Story This Week
The Pequod sails into good weather (114). They meet successful Nantucket ship the Bachelor, but Ahab refuses to socialise with the happy crew (115). The Pequod makes four whale kills shortly afterwards. (116). Ahab’s sleep is then disturbed by unpleasant dreams (117). Ahab measures the ship’s latitude and thinks about fate and the limits of science (118). The crew have a tormented time during a thunderstorm, coming close to mutiny (119). Later, Ahab refuses to listen to Starbuck about the day-to-day running of the Pequod (120).
Chapter 114: The Gilder, Read by Tom Maryniak. Artist: Rosie Snell
UK artist Tom Maryniak reads this short chapter where the Pequod is sailing in good weather in Japanese waters. Ishmael makes the ‘dreamy quietude’ of the sea into a domestic scene, seeing the relaxed seamen ‘like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale’. Even Ahab is affected by the peaceful mood, but it also spurs him to a tormented monologue about his quest. He talks about the ‘warp and woof’ of the threads of life, an image that has been used in Ishmael in previous chapters and by Melville to describe the nature of his large, digressive novel.
Also, every time sharks are mentioned in this book I find the imagery beautiful. Here, Starbuck mentions ‘the teeth-tiered sharks’.
I’m not sure what the title of this chapter means. I see online that a gilder was a craftsman who applied an overlay of gold or gilt to materials. Perhaps Ishmael is simply playing on the way the seamen overlay their happy, pleasant ‘land-like’ feelings onto the ‘remorseless fang’ of the ocean in this chapter.
Chapter 115: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor, Read by Stormy, Josiah and Nathaniel Mayo. Artist: Tanya Kovats
This chapter is read by a father and two sons from Provincetown in the US. The Pequod meets Nantucket whaling ship the Bachelor, which has been phenomenally successful at sea and is practically overflowing with sperm oil. Its crew form a ‘rejoicing drama’ that displeases Ahab, bound as he is in the bleak tragedy of his own ship. The two ships part ways, the Bachelor sailing merrily before the breeze, the Pequod in the opposite direction against it.
Why does Ahab have a vial of ‘Nantucket soundings’ (i.e. the sand collected when measuring the depth of the water) in his pocket? My assumption is that it a ritual or superstition for him, but I’d like to know more.
Chapter 116: The Dying Whale, Read by Jenny Cuffe. Artist: Tony Oursler
Chapter 116 is read nicely for us by BBC presenter Jenny Cuffe. This late stretch of the novel increasingly shows Ahab on stage and we’re seeing much more of him than we did in the first part of the novel. Its well known that Melville is heavily influenced by Shakespeare – that elaborate dialogue, the bawdy jokes – and we’ve seen the conventions of drama lifted directly into Moby-Dick several times now, complete with stage directions, the monologues and so on.
If it was written purely in a prose narrative, I’d feel somehow that Ahab is far too talkative for the sullen, impenetrable monomaniac he is meant to be. However, his speech is best recognised as dramatic monologue and soliloquy within the novel.
In Chapter 116, despite Ahab’s negative attitude, some of the good fortune of the Bachelor seems to have rubbed off on the Pequod: the crew kill four whales. One of these is slain by Ahab, and he watches its death throes. Ishmael tells us that when a sperm whale is dying, it is observed turning its head sunwards. The Pequod’s captain finds an intense, new wonder in this and speculates on his own relationship with the sea and death.
Chapter 117: The Whale Watch, Read by Dr Routledge. Artist: i-DAT
Reader Dr Chris Routledge is a writer and academic based in Liverpool who is collaborating with Margaret Guroff of the Power Moby-Dick website to create a new print edition of Melville’s novel. See their Kickstarter funding page here.
This is an excellent, creepy section where Ahab’s sleep is disturbed by dreams of death. He seeks counsel with Fedallah (‘the Parsee’), who prophesies for him. Ahab concludes that he is ‘Immortal on land and on sea!’ since Fedallah says ‘Hemp only can kill thee’. Surely, thinks Ahab, he can only mean the gallows? The reader is not so sure.
Ishmael describes Ahab’s groans in sleep as ‘like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah’. My Penguin edition of the novel informs me Asphaltites is another name for the Dead Sea. And, of course, Gomorrah is a Biblical reference, one of the cities of vice consumed by God in fire.
I loved the spooky descriptions in this chapter: the back of the dead whale in the water at night; Ahab and Fedallah like ‘the last men in a flooded world’ and more beautiful shark imagery: ‘the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails’.
Chapter 118: The Quadrant, Read by Horatio Morpurgo. Artist: Volker Eichelmann
English writer Horatio Morpurgo reads this chapter. A quadrant is a device used to measure latitude – see patell.org for a concise history and image of it. We get more insight into the Pequod’s captain as he takes his measurement. In a pathological, narcissistic way, he turns everything back to himself and his quest: even the sun is wanting because it cannot tell him everything about his own situation. As Ahab rages against the world, Fedallah, who had been kneeling passively at his captain’s feet, reacts:
As the frantic old man thus spoke and thus trampled with his live and dead feet, a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself – these passed over the mute, motionless Parsee’s face.
What exactly has brought Fedallah aboard the Pequod? A fascinating, cryptic moment.
Chapter 119: The Candles, Read by Mary Martin. Artist: Colin Crumplin
Another Provincetown resident reading here: this time musician Mary Martin. Regular blog readers will know I’m especially fond of chapters where readers add their own sound and music – here, the recording opens with notes from a ukelele and Martin sings Stubb’s determinedly jolly song. It’s a confident, nicely paced reading, too.
Events aboard the Pequod in The Candles seem to echo the cultish events back in Chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck, where Ahab swears in his crew to the hunt for Moby-Dick by having them drink from the upturned socket of a harpoon. It feels like an important set piece in the book, as all the crew are brought together to witness Ahab’s behaviour during the storm.
A hair-raising thing happens to the ship: corpusants, or St Elmo’s Fire. This is an electrical weather phenomenon that lights up the tips of metal objects with a blue, flaming glow or ‘coronal discharge’. It is sometimes seen on the wing tips of aeroplanes as well as ships at sea.
I was a teenager in the 90s, raised on a diet of The X-Files, the UFO craze and countless shabby books of conspiracy theories, ghosts and strange phenomena, so I quickly realised I read about this before (for similar reasons, the whale burning in Chapter 96 brought to mind spontaneous combustion). There’s really thorough information on How Stuff Works about it – interestingly, neon lighting works on the same principle of electric charge. And Wikipedia mentions that it features in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where it is meant as a negative sign.
The Pequod crew certainly don’t react positively to it. This is a remarkable scene, where the men are lit up in the enchanted glow of the ‘corpusants’. Tashtego’s teeth appear ‘shark-white’ and Queequeg’s tattoos burn ‘like Satanic blue flames’.
And we find out the cause of Ahab’s significant, disfiguring scar which Ishmael described so thoroughly in Chapter 28: he was injured during a religious ritual. Not a Christian one, but Zoroastrian. Prof. Patell has an excellent post on what’s going on in this chapter here.
Ahab is sure that the flames of St Elmo’s Fire light the way to Moby Dick. His harpoon is suddenly set alight by the flames and, terrifying the men on board, Ahab sets a foot on the back of Fedallah and roars a monologue to his worship of fire. The crew are appalled. In a desperate, futile moment, Starbuck is moved to grasp his captain by the arm and urge him to abandon his voyage. Ahab refuses, saying that his men are bound to the hunt of the White Whale, then raises the harpoon and blows out the flame.
As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab’s many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay.
Chapter 120: Toward the End of the First Night Watch – The Deck, Read by Novar Cane. Artist: Sarah Chapman
I couldn’t track down the details of the reader of this snippet of a chapter, where Starbuck has another exchange with his captain about the upkeep of the Pequod. Unlike Chapter 109, where the first mate managed to convince Ahab to attend to the ship, here the old man refuses to grant his request. He orders instead that everything aboard be lashed tight.
My copy of the novel informs me that Ahab’s use of ‘gluepots’ here refers to parsons, i.e. people who marry or ‘glue’ people together, and I think he means it as a derogatory term aimed at his crew. Also, where he talks about his ‘brain-truck': when I hear the word ‘truck’ I automatically pictured a British lorry, then realised that didn’t make sense (although I quite enjoyed the deranged image it evoked). Ahab is referring to the wooden discs fixed high to the rigging of the ship.
I quite liked Ahab saying ‘hooroosh’. It sounds almost Scottish, like some hybrid of stooshie and stramash. Interestingly, the definitions offered for ‘hooroosh’ are close to the meaning of those words. My Penguin edition of the novel reckons it means cries of triumph and excitement; powermobydick lists it as a confusion or agitation.
Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 121 to 127 here on Sunday, 20th January 2013. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC webpage here.