Home > Uncategorized > Week 2: O Captain, Where Art Thou?

Week 2: O Captain, Where Art Thou?

One of the more interesting aspects of the book so far is how little we have seen of Captain Ahab.  Last week, Matt asked “Who is the main character of Moby-Dick? Is it Ishmael, Ahab, or the whale?” It’s a question I’ve never really considered before.   I mean, the sort of easy summary of the book is “Ahab chases whale” and yet clearly the story is Ishmael’s.  And, since I haven’t finished the book yet, it’s hard to say who the main character is.

Now, at this point it would be foolish to discount Ahab’ role in the story, for we haven’t gotten even half way through yet.  However, we’ve seen barely anything of this fearsome Captain thus far.  But even if he isn’t the main character (to be determined), his role in the story is pretty essential, so what gives with the lack of the Captain?

I think that Melville is deliberately building tension about Ahab.  After 100 or so pages, we’re pretty invested in Ishmael.  His tone is one of a friend, a fellow traveler whom we might meet and who would tell us this story (including wanting us to be completely filled in on every detail of the trip.  And so, Melville uses a kind of slow reveal, keeping the Captain under wraps with just a few glimpses and portents about the man.

I may have gotten a bit carried away with some of the longer quotes (apologies), but after not seeing the man for a quarter of the book, getting this much detail is pretty powerful.

At first he is mentioned almost fearfully; Ishmael says he normally wouldn’t sail on a vessel without meeting its captain (sound advice, I would think). And, of course, Ishmael is told that the Captain is more or less crazy, but is recovering nicely.

But our first look of real menace about Ahab comes from Elijah (the prophet), who warns Ishmael about going on board the ship.

Even as the they set out (in a chapter called Ahab), Ishmael notes, “For several days after leaving Nantucket, nothing above hatches was seen of Captain Ahab” (119).* Our fears for him are assuaged when he reveals that it is not uncommon for the main captain to not really command the ship in the beginning of a voyage, that he’ll deal with the whale part, but the mates can run the first lengths.

And then Ahab appears, almost out of nowhere, and we get this amazing description:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say. (120-121).

Ishmael is slowly blown away by him:

So powerfully did the whole grim aspect of Ahab affect me, and the livid brand which streaked it, that for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood. It had previously come to me that this ivory leg had at sea been fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw. (121)

And the infamous leg:

was struck with the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow (121).

But still he does not say a word:

Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye (122).

Now that’s an entrance.  And yet, despite all of this, we still don’t know anything about him.  He’s barely spoken, he just seems to have an air of menace.

From this point, we get little snippets of Ahab.  For the most part he is still silent, until he has an incident with Stubb:

Stubb, the odd second mate, came up from below, and with a certain unassured, deprecating humorousness, hinted that if Captain Ahab was pleased to walk the planks, then, no one could say nay; but there might be some way of muffling the noise; hinting something indistinctly and hesitatingly about a globe of tow, and the insertion into it, of the ivory heel. Ah! Stubb, thou did’st not know Ahab then.

“Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb,” said Ahab, “that thou wouldst wad me that fashion? But go thy ways; I had forgot. Below to thy nightly grave; where such as ye sleep between shrouds, to use ye to the filling one at last. – Down, dog, and kennel!”

Starting at the unforeseen concluding exclamation of the so suddenly scornful old man, Stubb was speechless a moment; then said excitedly, “I am not used to be spoken to that way, sir; I do but less than half like it, sir.”

“Avast!” gritted Ahab between his set teeth, and violently moving away, as if to avoid some passionate temptation.

“No, sir; not yet,” said Stubb, emboldened, “I will not tamely be called a dog, sir.”

“Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”

As he said this, Ahab advanced upon him with such overbearing terrors in his aspect, that Stubb involuntarily retreated. (124).

But that scenes ends quietly, and we soon see the Captain and his three mates sitting down at to a civil, albeit quiet meal.  But all of this silence, all of this trepidation can only lead to some kind of outburst.  As if Ahab’s clomping around the deck of the ship (with his more and more insisting pacing) were some kind of anticipatory drum roll, we see that Ahab is about to let loose.

Stubb, once again, whispers (out of Ahab’s earshot this time):

“D’ye mark him, Flask?” whispered Stubb; “the chick that’s in him pecks the shell. T’will soon be out” (158).

Shortly afterward Ahab comes forth, calling all of the crew to attention.  He asks them a series of silly whaling questions, sort of like a good ol’ pep rally at football game.  And then he flourishes a Spanish ounce of gold–“holding up a broad bright coin to the sun”– and reveals the secret point of the voyage. (159):

whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke – look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!  (159).

Although Starbuck is hesitant, Ahab quickly produces a hot, hard drink and all parties drink heartily (a perfect bonding moment).  After a few more rallying cries, Ahab ends the scene:

Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow – Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. (164-165).

And the captain, on this high note, quietly retires to his cabin.

Before the week’s end, Ishmael muses about Moby-Dick (who is more or less making his first appearance in the book too) and about Captain Ahab. This final chapter gives a more detailed, nuanced look into the mind of Ahab (at least as Ishmael sees it).  I can’t decide if it’s entirely necessary (as it comes across as a lot of “telling” after a pretty clear “showing” but it does go someway toward cementing Ahab’s emotional complexity.

So Melville has done a pretty masterful job of building up suspense and then unveiling his master creation.  We read nearly a quarter of the book before we actually see him.  And if you’re reading carefully (or it’s 1851 and you’re only slightly familiar with the story), this slow build before revealing the madman at the helm is really quite effective.

I mentioned on my home post that the book was meant to be leisurely read (not crammed in a few days before a midterm!).  And, if you are prepared to sit back and let the language wash over you, the pacing for the book is really masterful, especially if you had a hint of what was to come.  And there’s really something striking about all of the build up before getting to this major character.

*This week, and for future weeks, I’ll be using the page numbers at this  Princeton site.  Sorry for the confusion

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  1. Joann Karen
    June 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    yes, I agree — “sit back and let the language wash over you”

  2. June 2, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I find that if I try to read any of these passages too quickly I get totally lost. Dare I say lost at sea? (booo!)

  3. June 3, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I agree, Paul, about the tension that builds regarding Ahab. Peleg, Bildad, and Elijah are all foreboding about Ahab, in their own ways, and it really clothes him in mystery before he ever appears. Then, as you say, he enters silently, which only makes things more suspenseful. The drinking-oath scene did seem a little over the top to me, but for all its fire and excess, Melville had done the work already for us to believe it of Ahab, even though we had barely seen him.

  4. MT
    June 4, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Also agree on the leisurely read, the writing is so dense, it’s easy to miss the gems as well as the jokes. Am enjoying this so far but finding myself reading ahead of my comprehension, then re-reading. Our 6-week schedule tempts me to rush or even skip ahead, but have been rewarded so far with reading patiently, deliberately, leisurely.

    Also enjoyed the little parade of countries in Midnight, Forecastle (XL) and the phrase “unensanguined billows” in Moby Dick (XLI).

    • June 5, 2010 at 9:01 pm

      I too have been enjoying the, to me, strange language that Melville uses. Of course I don’t have any handy, but there a lot of words with -est at the end that I’ve never seen before. And, unensanguined is just fantastic.

  1. June 5, 2010 at 5:58 pm
  2. June 14, 2010 at 11:47 am

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