A while back, we did a group read of Moby-Dick, and artist Matt Kish was kind enough not only to endure an interview about his project to illustrate each page of the book but also to contribute several posts about his process. His project went on to be turned into a gorgeous book, and now he’s moving on to other projects. As part of that move, he’s looking to get shed of the remaining unsold pieces of Moby-Dick artwork. If you’re into Moby-Dick or are familiar with Matt’s work and think you might like to own a piece of it (I’ve bought several, and they’re among my most prized possessions), now’s a good time to buy. If you haven’t run across the work before, you at least owe it to yourself to see it online.
I had originally planned to call this “Death and All His Friends” which seemed so clever and eerily appropriate. And then I realized it was the title of a Coldplay album and decided that all my street cred would be lost (even though I do like the disc).
I was also considering talking about omens in the book, but that has been well covered by Daryl (I do have some specific omens in this post). And finally I considered revisiting religion since Ahab has the audacity to baptize his harpoon in Satan’s name (and there’s a Starbuck as Jesus motif going on). But really what could be more right than death?
I had noticed throughout the book that there was very little death (except for the whales of course). This is despite the opening scene in the church with all of the grave markers and Ishmael slowly reading them all. In fact, despite Pip’s falling over and Queequeg’s “fatal illness” no one had died at all aboard the Pequod.
Then in this final week’s reading–which was really fantastic. I can’t get over how gripped I was by the build up and the whole chase sequence–death starts to poke its head out of the waters.
The first death is very cryptic, and possibly not even real (?). In Chapter 126 (The Life-Buoy) we learn of one of the crew (who, strangely, remains unnamed) who fell overboard:
At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore…he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard – a cry and a rushing – and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.
The life-buoy – a long slender cask – was dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning spring; but no hand rose to seize it…and the studded iron- bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom.
And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep (516).
And from that anonymous death, things really escalate.
Of course, there is the obvious omen (I couldn’t resist) of using a coffin as a life-buoy, but the very next encounter is with The Rachel. Unlike all of the other ships that the Pequod has encountered (all with varying degrees of success) none has suffered a fate as wrenching as this one: the captain’s own 12-year-old boy is lost at sea, and he had to choose his other son’s life over this one. And the Rachel has been looking for him (and his boat) for a day already…it’s hopeless. That whole boat’s crew is dead.
This visit is followed by a visit from The Delight. The Delight has encountered the White Whale and has suffered terribly for it
“I bury but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night. Only that one I bury; the rest were buried before they died; you sail upon their tomb” (532).
As ships near the white whale, death cannot be far. (In fact the most successful ship, the Bachelor–which was laden with sperm–didn’t even think the White Whale was real). Then, just to rub it in a little, as the Pequod sails away from The Delight, she is
not quick enough to escape the sound of the splash that the corpse soon made as it struck the sea; not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism (532).
Given this portent, and the seeming snowball of deaths, the actual Pequod deaths do not come fast and furious. On the first day of the chase, everyone is spared. On the second day of the chase, only Fedallah is killed [must...not...mention...prophecies]. This wounds Ahab terribly, but he manages to press on.
Of course, on that third day everyone dies, so I guess the trickle became a gusher. But it’s fascinating to see how delicately Melville handles this mass death. Even in that last scene when the Pequod sinks, only a few crewmen are mentioned by name–and Tashtego is still engaged in an activity when the boat goes down: “Tashtego’s mast-head hammer remained suspended in his hand” (563). No one is said to suffer (Pip suffered far more on the page during his ordeals), and it ends very quickly.
What I found most interesting is that as a reader, I was picking up on all of the omens, the prophecies, the greater and greater deaths, and yet, like Ahab I read nothing into them. I was sure that the ending…well, what? I didn’t think it could be a happy ending (whatever that might mean), I wasn’t even sure if I thought Ahab would be victorious (I wasn’t holding my breath for him). And yet, I never imagined that the whole ship would sink.
And even though this ending happens remarkably quickly (the ending scene is the last three pages of a 469 page book (the Norton edition)), it doesn’t feel like what my friends and I have called The Star Trek ending–[Five minutes till the end of the show, Captain, shall we release the dilithium crystal and huzzah!--we're all safe (I like Star Trek (especially TNG) but it's funny how many of their shows end like this)]. Obviously, Moby Dick doesn’t have that ending because in everyone dies, but what I mean is, the ending feels like a natural, almost inevitable end. I was shocked–completely shocked–when I read that everyone died. And yet in retrospect it is the only reasonable outcome.
I am still really surprised that Queequeg dies. I realize there’s no way to save him and have it be believable, but still. It’s also weird how little is made of Queequeg going down too. [Can you imagine is he somehow managed to get Ishmael and Queequeg rescued on the coffin together--it's sequel city baby!].
I mentioned in my other post how beautiful I think the Epilogue is, and I will do so here as well. It’s tidy and elegant and unlike many epilogues which sort of tidy up loose threads a little too neatly, this one pulls together various ideas (the coffin, The Rachel) and uses them to give Ishmael a fully believable rescue.
When you reach the end, you realize that this story is something of a eulogy; a whale tale told to someone about the death of his shipmates. This gives the entire book an angle that didn’t exist before. Were I the kind of person who did this sort of thing (I’m not) I would re-read the book with this new information in mind to try to see if the book reads differently knowing the outcome.
I am really very pleased for having read this book. And I’ve more than very pleased to have been able to write these posts here. I hope they’ve been interesting. Thanks for reading.
Hi everyone, I’m Joan and I’m returning to the Zombies fold after almost totally folding on 2666! I first read Moby-Dick as an adult and I’m really glad that it was never required reading for me. I approached it the first time with open arms and I fell in love. It was the pick of the reading group I was in at the time in Brooklyn, and although we extended the time-frame by a month I was the only one to finish it. So I had only myself to discuss it with. Now, around 12 years later, I’m already way ahead in terms of discussion and analysis and it’s only week 1!
This time around I’m doing side reading, working my way through a number of the books Daryl reviewed here, particularly Hoare’s The Whale, Delbanco’s Melville, and soon Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary which should arrive today. Additionally I’m dipping into Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan. I feel as though I’m completely immersing myself in Moby-Dick and what a rich world it is.
In what is looking like a bit of a theme for the first week here, I’m going to touch on one of the elements of the work that I truly love. I’m a total sucker for beautifully crafted phrases, the ones that take your breath away and make your heart sing, the ones that you stop, read again, underline and star in the margins, the ones that can in just a few words speak a universal truth. Many years and so many wonderful books have come and gone since my first time with Moby-Dick I had almost forgotten just how poetic and beautiful Melville could be. Sure, it’s an adventure story, and there are so many styles and tones woven together, but it’s those beautiful phrases that keep me coming back. Here are just a few of my favorites so far.
Chapter 12, regarding Queequeg’s native land:
It is not down in any map; true places never are.
Chapter 14, right at the end regarding Nantucketers:
For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
Chapter 16, regarding the Pequod, the well known but still wonderful to me, and beautifully illustrated by Matt:
She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies
Which ones are moving you?
A few weeks ago, before I had ever gotten wind that 2666 intersected with Moby Dick via a sermon by Barry Seaman resembling a sermon by Father Mapple, I found myself playing with the idea of proposing Moby Dick as the next Infinite Summer read. I’m not sure how I feel about it now, frankly. The IS crowd seems to dwindle with every book, and I now imagine myself trying in some way to lead or guide a group read only to discover that I’m the only one interested, that I’m doing the work for the benefit of no one but myself. Which would be fine (benefitting only myself), were it not public and, in its failure, embarrassing. So I thought I’d take your temperature on the matter, Internet.
I think that part of the reason Infinite Jest was such a popular read was because it was one of those books that smart people had been meaning to read forever but had put off. Here was kind of a kick in the collective pants to read the thing. I suspect that many have passed over Moby Dick as well and that a subset of those folk would enjoy doing a group read of it. Misery loves company, I guess. (Though there’s not much of misery in reading Moby Dick. I don’t understand why people don’t like it or think they won’t like it. You’ll watch an hour of How It’s Made or follow over the course of several months the labors of the Sea Sheperd or of the ships on Deadliest Catch, but you can’t bring yourself to read this dramatic, tender book that encompasses elements of those shows, but in high literary style and with humor, passion, and compassion?)
Another thing that made Infinite Jest a good pick was its emotional appeal. The people who love this book really love it. Many who give it a chance wind up feeling emotional about it. Moby Dick is one of my favorite books, but I don’t feel emotional about it in the way that I do with Infinite Jest. So maybe that’s a strike against Moby Dick‘s shot at being a successful group read selection.
What do you think? If I were to line up a schedule and see if I could find the occasional guest writer or define a set of themes, a la Matt, to track, would you be interested in participating? Or should I just read at my own pace and blog my thoughts if and when inclined?