"And so here, O Reader, has the time come for us two to part. Toilsome was our journeying together; not without offence; but it is done...Yet our relation was a kind of sacred one; doubt not that!...Ill stands it with me if I have spoken falsely; thine also it was to hear truly. Farewell."
|Humpty and Herman sitting around with some poetry in the background. |
Shakespeare is above and to the right. Milton further above and to the left.
So what are the things that occurred to me on this, my second complete reading of Moby-Dick?
Funny: It really is funny in the beginning. First, Ishmael's voice is comic. He's going to knock the hats off people if he doesn't cut loose in some other way. Then he gets cozened into sleeping with a cannibal. Bildad and Peleg are the Mutt and Jeff of ship-owners.
Three Parts: The novel comes in three parts. There is a little intermingling of the parts here and there, but basically they are separate. The first is everything up till they lose sight of shore and Ahab appears. This is the funny part. We learn about Ishmael, we like him. We learn about some of the other crew members as well, Queequeg in particular. Queequeg, of course, is simply a funny name.
The second part is reportorial/scientific. It's the longest. We learn about whales and the process of whaling. This is the part that bores people now, and I believe where I punted on my first attempt (in high school) to read Moby-Dick. But it is interesting, if less so than the rest. Reading Delbanco's biography earlier informed me to some degree the reportorial was the reason people read Melville's earlier, more successful books. Curiosity about a subject is definitely a reason to read novels, as well as non-fiction.
The third part is the symbolically-loaded tragic ending. I'm not going to do a plot summary. You know how it ends. It is both exciting and affecting, in a tragic flaw kind of way.
Epic Similes: I could have been reading the Iliad. I mean, really, I could have.
"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 119
"The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon-ball, missent, becomes a plough-share and turns up the level field." -Chapter 134Homer's got nothing on this dude.
Language: Which brings me to language. Nearing the end of my reading I made a list of roughly contemporary novels. (Moby-Dick comes out in 1851.)
David Copperfield, 1849-50The language in Moby-Dick doesn't sound like any of those to me, though I didn't go back and look. Not even Wuthering Heights or Scarlet Letter. It's weirdly out of its time. The Delbanco biography said that Melville had ordered up Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir Thomas Browne from his bookseller before he started writing Moby-Dick in earnest, and Melville is clearly channelling a language already around two hundred years old for him. Quite successfully, I'd say. But also: Carlyle. Sartor-Resartus comes out in book form in 1836, and Melville could have read that as well as The French Revolution (quoted above) and On Heroes and Hero-Worship. I have no idea if Melville did read Carlyle, but Carlyle is famous (so it's likely enough) and he's the one roughly contemporary author whose language sounds to me something like Melville's. It may just be that both of them were absorbing Burton and Browne, though.
Wuthering Heights, 1847
Jane Eyre, 1847
Vanity Fair, 1848
Scarlet Letter, 1850
Macbeth: As long as we're thinking about those Shakespearean precursors, I've seen mention of King Lear. Well, of course. But not Macbeth. But just as Macbeth had two pledges he would not die, so does Ahab. But Birnam Wood did come to Dunsinane, and a man not of woman born showed at the just the wrong moment for Macbeth. So, too, does the Parsee go before Ahab, but appear again; and so, too, does Ahab die by hemp, though in the middle of the ocean.
Quotes: I haven't been issuing quotes from my reading as I went along (though thanks! to Brona and Rick and Denise and Laurie for some great ones.) But I couldn't resist a few myself, even though they're likely enough to be duplicates now...
"It is not down in any map; true places never are." - Chapter 12
"Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth--" -Chapter 29 (Oh, that Stubb. Another comic.)
"God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay but the draught of a draught." - Chapter 32 (What, was he reading Pessoa, too?)
"For what he ate did not so much relieve his hunger, as keep it immortal within him." - Chapter 33 (Flask sounds a bit like myself as a teenager.)
"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Chapter 39 (Another fine Stubb-ism.)
"To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all the tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order." - Chapter 46
"Thou should'st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens hate ye, that thou can'st not go mad?" - Chapter 113
"There is no steady unretracing progress in this life;" - Chapter 114Some Critics: A couple of years ago I read Lawrence Buell's The Dream of The Great American Novel. I got it back from the library recently, and though I didn't reread the whole book, I looked at the Moby-Dick part; he lumps Moby-Dick with Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as one of four approaches to the Great American Novel; these three are under the heading 'Imagined Communities.' (The other approaches are: up-from narratives, examinations of race, and The Scarlet Letter, which he puts in its own category.) I recommend the Buell if you're interested in the subject.
I'm also likely to try to read Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael by the end of the month, and maybe (maybe!) D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Here are the other posts of mine mostly relating to critical work on Moby-Dick and Melville.
One Amusing Fact: Starbucks, the coffee chain, was named for Moby-Dick's Starbuck, but only after Howard Schultz convinced Gordon Bowker, "No one's going to drink a cup of Pequod!" True that, Howie. (At least according to Schultz' own book , co-written with Dori Jones Yang, about Starbucks and titled Pour Your Heart Into It, quoted in Buell.)
And: you know, Moby-Dick really is something great.
Thanks to Brona for organizing the readalong!