Sunday, September 6, 2015

Moby Dick Ch. 16: The Ship

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. 

The next morning Ishmael goes looking for a whaling ship on Nantucket which might hire him and Queequeg for a voyage.  He settles upon a ship called the Pequod, named after a New England native American tribe that had been decimated by white settlers.  Americans have a strange habit of naming things (ships, sports teams, missiles) after defeated Indian tribes.

The Pequod is an old but sturdy craft.  Ishmael describes the ship in this way: “she was a thing of trophies.  A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies…A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!  All noble things are touched with that.”

Ishmael encounters a crusty old sailor named Peleg, who is one of the owners of the craft, and thus Ishmael’s potential employer.  Peleg takes Ishmael to see the other owner, Bildad.  Being old Nantucketers, the two captains are Quakers, a religious sect known for its pacifism.  However, because they are involved in the bloody business of whaling, Ishmael ironically describes them as “fighting Quakers…Quakers with a vengeance.” 

The apparent contradiction of the two Quaker captains gets to the heart of a kind of American hypocrisy: “Though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he (Bildad) in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tons upon tons of leviathan gore…very probably he had long since come to sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.  This world pays dividends.”

This hypocrisy is also shown in paltry sum which Bildad offers Ishmael.  He quotes scripture to justify his cheapness: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…”  This is hypocritical, of course, because in cheating Ishmael, Bildad is enriching himself.  Yet captain Peleg intervenes, and guarantees Ishmael a more equitable wage. 

The chapter ends with Peleg giving mysterious descriptions of the ship’s captain, Ahab, who thus far has not appeared.  Like the Quaker ship-owners, Ahab is described as a man of contradictions: “He ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either.”  Peleg describes Ahab as “a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man—something like me—only there’s a good deal more of him.”  He tells Ishmael that Ahab lost his leg to a whale on the past voyage and “was out of his mind for a spell.” 

Ishmael leaves feeling a sense of sympathy, sorrow, and awe for the mysterious captain Ahab.


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