Sunday, April 5, 2015

Moby Dick Ch. 3: The Spouter-Inn

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.  This will (hopefully) culminate in a large book report on the whole book.  I will also include illustrations I find on the internet or in books.

Ishmael enters the shabby-looking Spouter-Inn and is struck by the decor.  A very old and weathered painting hangs on the wall, “a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly.”  At first, he makes fun of it (to himself), but upon closer inspection and reflection finds an “unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it.”  Though he can’t quite make out what it is, the painting suggests multiple meanings, the last of which is of “an exasperated whale…in the enormous act of impaling itself upon the three mast-heads.”  Precisely because of its dark, abstract, and ragged quality, the painting seems (to me) to be a kind of visual preview of the novel to come—a sublime work of art with many meanings.

The walls of The Spouter-Inn are “decorated” with various weapons and “rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all broken and deteriorated.”  The shelves are filled with all manner of strange 19th century things—decanters, bones, bottles, and flasks.  A little old man, the proprietor, is serving some seamen, his customers.

Ishmael asks the proprietor if he has any rooms available, and the man says no, unless he wants to share a bed with a harpooneer.  Reluctantly, Ishmael agrees, and here begins a humorous back-and-forth in which the innkeeper gives Ishmael some disturbing hints about his bed-mate, which cause increasing anxiety and fear.  For example, the harpooneer likes to eat rare steaks, he is “dark complexioned”, and he is currently wandering around New Bedford trying to sell a human head.  Based on these facts, Ishmael surmises that his mysterious bedfellow is a “heathen, savage, cannibal.”

After some not-altogether-reassuring reassurances from the landlord, Ishmael goes to bed, but is unable to sleep, considering the fact that he’s bunking with a “dangerous cannibal.”  Finally, his bed-mate arrives and, at first, confirms all his worst fears.  He is covered in tattoos, he smokes from a deadly-looking tomahawk pipe, and he prays to a little “idol.”  The harpooneer jumps into bed and bumps Ishmael.  At first they are both startled, and Ishmael calls desperately for the landlord, who enters and says, “Queequeg here wouldn’t harm a hair of your head.”  As it turns out, this “heathen, savage, cannibal” is really a very kind and charitable fellow.  Ishmael falls asleep “and never slept better” in his life.

This chapter is a really important one in the novel and in the context of 1850s America.  Ishmael realizes that “ignorance is the parent of fear” and ultimately concludes: “What’s all this fuss I have been making about…the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”  Contrary to the widely-held racism of his day, Ishmael transcends fears and stereotypes, and will ultimately develop a great friendship with this supposed “other.”  Just like the painting at the beginning of the chapter, Queequeg the harpooneer will turn out to be much more than first appearances and impressions suggest.

Ishmael and Queequeg

No comments:

Post a Comment