Moby-Dick discussion

Moby-Dick or, the Whale
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Weekly Discussions (Moby-Dick) > Week One: Chapters 1 -11

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Sarah (sarahj) | 121 comments Mod
Sailors, welcome to the discussion thread for chapters 1 (‘Loomings’) through 11 (‘Nightgown’)!
From the comic friendship to the fart joke to the writing, most everyone seems to be enjoying Moby Dick. We’ve met Ishmael, Queequeg, and Peter Coffin, heard the sermon on Jonah, and learned one cure for the “hypos,” that November of the soul, i.e. going to sea. Well it is November and here we are embarking.
Here’s my first question – why “Call me Ishmael?” The whole first paragraph, charming as it is, seems an invitation to doubt the narrator. “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely…”


message 2: by Ken (last edited Nov 04, 2011 02:13AM) (new)

Ken I'm off to the mines and will be back later, but will throw in an additional question -- for our Biblical scholars (read: Google togglers). Where in the Bible is the real Ishmael, and what's he known for? Surely our narrator's choice in "callings" cannot be random!


Sarah (sarahj) | 121 comments Mod
Poor Ishmael. It's a beautiful name, and wonderful whispered (as Queequeg surely knew).


LauraT (laurata) Ishmael is one of the sons of the patriarch Abrahm; son of a slave, Agar, he was made to go away from home by the legitimate wife of Abraham, Sarah, when she had her son, Isacco. From this exile in the desert of Paran, it is common to let the race of the Ishmaelite descend, the Arabs of today. He is also a prophet.
By S. Paolo he is considered (letter to Galatei cfr 3,15) example of blind obedience to god, as a son of a not free woman.

That's for Ishmael. By the way, I have a vague remembrance of something I had to study for my reading of Moby Dick in University, saying that the expression "Call me Ishmael" instead of "My name is Ishmael" or "I'm Ishmael" had a deep meaning. But I can't remember what!!! And my university papers have all been scattered in my moving!!! Any idea?

Of these first chapters I'd like to underline a couple of things.
First of all, it is the call of the sea Ishmael has when in a sort of crisis; oh, how well I understand him!!! I think that we really come from the sea, and to the sea we want to go back when big problems are around us ...

The second scene I've loved of this part is the "recognition" of Quequeg at night, by Ishmael from the bed he has to share with him: he passes from fear, to distrust, to acceptance, to deep friendship whithin 5/10 pages. How things would be different - and better - if we could all learn from his example...


Sarah (sarahj) | 121 comments Mod
I really enjoy the love/friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. It is one of the most overtly homosexual relationships I've seen in literature that just barely tries to pass itself off as not homosexual. It could well be that Melville meant them just to be bosom pals, but the closeness and smoking in bed leave little wiggle room.


Charles My reading is that the important difference of "Call me Ishmael" is that I (Ishmael) am not named (I am called... ) but name myself. I choose Ishmael, with all the baggage LauraT illuminates. (Isn't it wonderful that a reader of the time might be expected to know all that?) There is also the rejection of a "calling" and a suggestion that Ishmael is not his real name -- either his name ought not be spoken, or he doesn't have one. That he might be duplicitous is a possibility soon dispelled by the Queequeg scene.


Charles Another reading, as regards Queequeg. In this relationship we at once have a refutation of the sermon and the whole Ahab mentality. The lines are drawn at the very beginning. But it is this very thing which gives Ahab, the Ahab culture, and the November land from which Ishmael desires to escape its force. Ahab is a serious antagonist, not seductive in a loving way but in the grand awe-ful way of the (F)ather.


Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments I think the connection between Ishmael of Moby-Dick and the one of the Bible is a profound dislocation.

When Ishmael writes about being simple sailor before the mast, "It touches one's sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you."

He's being ironic, there's self-deprecating humor here, but I think these are real feelings as well. Ishmael doesn't say, "This is MY background" but it is Melville's who came from American aristocracy, whose father had trouble making a living and died early, who went to work to help support the family at a young age -- although going to sea is not necessarily a good way to support the family.

So there's a sense of dislocation, a sense of never quite belonging in Ishmael and Melville.


Sarah (sarahj) | 121 comments Mod
That quote is really interesting in light of the Old Testatment Ishmael, being from an important family, and being cast out of it.

The line "Call me Ishmael" is one of American literature's most famous. There's not only the question of why is it formulated that way, but also its direct address to the reader, and invitation into the story.


LauraT (laurata) I was thinking the same think S. A way of calling us in; but what Charles said stands well though...


message 11: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 07:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Sarah,

The question of homoeroticism in Melville is legitimate. I was struck, as a man, that Ishmael thinks of himself as the wife. I was also struck that he referred to their friendship as a marriage.

I haven't read it, there's a scene in Redburn, an earlier novel, in a homosexual brothel where Melville apparently goes on and on about how great the men looked.

The interesting thing about Moby-Dick -- or in Melville in general -- is what one does with it.

I thought I quote this from Elizabeth Hardwick's Penguin Lives bio of Melville (if I posted this before forgive me, but I couldn't find it) which I'm reading and recommend. The great about thing about the series is that bios are SHORT -- this is around 150 pp.

She's talking of Melville, but she might be talking (for the most part) of Ishmael:

"Who was he? Godless or God-seeking? Mystic or realist? Natural husband and father or one swimming in oceanic homoerotic yearnings? Disappointed, restless or near to madness? The gorgeous phantasmagoria, Moby-Dic: Who can finally know the whole of Melville's intention in the creation of the wild gladiators, Captain Ahab and the White Whale?
....This often unhappy man knew many happy days; or was it that this mor or less ettled gentleman had periods of desolation? All is true, if you like.
-- Elizabeth Hardwick, Melville , Penguin Lives


message 12: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 07:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments What struck me first was the romanticism of the novel, the extreme emotion and extreme diction. What IS Ishmael's mood exactly? I've experienced a lot of emotions, but I don't know what this about:

“growing grim around the mouth,” “damp, drizzly November in soul”, his “pausing before coffin warehouses, and brining up the rear of every funeral I meet” and primarily an anger that is difficult to control and, he says, needs “a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hat’s off”.

I was reminded of Poe -- and I realized I should read Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket which is about, interestingly enough a whaling voyage.

So that's there first thing. But Melville doesn't maintain this mood. We can easily move to amused detachment and farce.

And in the end I think his world view is could not be called romantic, or deeply romantic.

He commits to nothing for very long.


Sarah (sarahj) | 121 comments Mod
Bill, I think you did post that, but that's good, because I was wondering where I read it.


message 14: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 07:16AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments There's also the introduction of the theme of cannibals and Christians, in which the cannibals come off a good deal better. Queequeg is both "noble savage" -- literally as well as figuratively, he's of royal blood -- but he's also a figure of fun as are the Christians who engage with him. This exploration of cannibals and Christians runs throughout the book and becomes more fully developed -- and in that regard is central to Melville's notion of the world.

On the other hand, Melville never lets us see civilized folk as civilized and his view of the "civilized" can get quite dark as well as comic. In fact, a whaling ship is NOT a place where one might expect to find civilization.

Again, quoting Hardwick, Melville

The whaler, the exploitation of the dead beast, is not a youthful, romantic adventure of bracing experience. So many of one's companions have come sulking away, address unknown , from howling creditors, accusing wives, alert policeman, beggary on shore. Except for a few a sensibility like Melville's own, it is day and night, months, yars with the thoroughly ruined, the outcasts, the drunken, and here and there a welcome ordinary sailor of harmless eccentricity and vagrant skills.

In that regard, this is also a novel written just ten years before the Civil War, and there is the question of race in the background.


message 15: by Petra (new)

Petra S. wrote: "why “Call me Ishmael?” The whole first paragraph, charming as it is, seems an invitation to doubt the narrator...."

Laura, thank you for the information on the Biblical Ishmael. The tie-in to our Ishmael and isolation is interesting. Although the biblical Ishmael was exiled, while our Ishmael self-imposed his isolation on himself. The comparisons between the two may be in the life they each led during their isolation.

As for the question: "Call me Ishmael" seems like an invitation to a closer, more intimate relationship with the narrator than saying "my name is Ishmael", which seems more distanced and a bit formal in comparison. Ishmael seems to be inviting us into his life and thoughts in an open, confiding way.
He is observant and we learn a lot about the surroundings and people and events as he details them. They are detailed from his perspective, which makes it somewhat unreliable, but its an honest assessment from his point of view. We can't expect more from anyone than that. Because of this honesty to the reader, I think "call me Ishmael" is an intimate invitation to be his friend, confidante and maybe to use the reader as a confessionary outlet (??? I don't know the story so can't speak on that yet but it crossed my mind).

I'm enjoying the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. I was struck by the homosexuality of it as well, S. Because of the times in which the book was written, I'm almost certain that the friendship isn't meant to be homosexual but it sure reads like it. It's a nice relationship, though, showing that people can understand and enjoy each other's company despite many differences. What's needed is patience, understanding and aceptance. Melville seems to be way ahead of his time in this way of thinking. (that may be a prejudice/misunderstanding on my part. Perhaps Melville's time was more open than my perception of past times. I think of earlier times as more puritanical and confined and am prepared to be wrong about this.)


Stephanie Bens | 19 comments Bill wrote: "What struck me first was the romanticism of the novel, the extreme emotion and extreme diction. What IS Ishmael's mood exactly? I've experienced a lot of emotions, but I don't know what this about:..."


I think the point you've made about "Ishmael's" questionable mood and Melville's decision not to maintain one mood throughout the novel leads us back to the initial question of who the narrator really is. There seems to be two narrative voices occurring here: the young Ishmael before the voyage and the older Ishmael who speaks to us about his past. I'm not sure yet which narrator is the romantic sort (I think it's the young Ishmael) or what frame of mind the other narrator adheres to, but I'm sure that will clear up as we read more.


message 17: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 09:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Stephanie wrote: "Bill wrote: "What struck me first was the romanticism of the novel, the extreme emotion and extreme diction. What IS Ishmael's mood exactly? I've experienced a lot of emotions, but I don't know wha..."

I don't think so, Stephanie. I think neither Ishamael nor Melville ever came to one fixed point, and the interesting part of the novel, really, is watching the back and forth that never finds resolution. This is a complex point of view from a complex character who may see things differently given the time of day.


Stephanie Bens | 19 comments In response to Petra's comment that "Call me Ishmael" is an invitation for the reader to begin a close, intimate relationship with the reader, I agree in part. This does seem like a friendly way to introduce one's self. It is as if Ishmael is inviting us to trust him and come with him on this journey.
However, as has been pointed out, people tend to introduce themselves this way only if they have something to hide. It seems clear to me that Ishmael is not the narrator's real name, so I for one will hold back my trust in him until after he has finished his tale. While a person's name does not tell us much about what sort of person the narrator is, I do think the fact that he has concealed his name is important because it indicates that he is hiding in some way. Until we figure out what he is hiding, I don't think Ishmael can be trusted as a narrator.

I am also intrigued by Petra's thought that Ishmael may be using "the reader as a confessionary outlet." I believe that this may be true, especially after the sermon chapter. I think it is possible that Ishmael actually bares closer resemblance to Jonah than the Ishmael in the Bible in that he may be running from a past sin or guilt and is avoiding God. Perhaps this is why he choose to go into exile and change his name. Maybe he needs to tell us his story in order to make things right with himself and God.


Charles Stephanie wrote: "Until we figure out what he is hiding, I don't think Ishmael can be trusted as a narrator."

I think looking for this sort of angst in Ishmael is a little previous, and I'm not sure what counts as trust (now or ever). Ishmael's elaborate language for describing depression carries with it an atmosphere of blarney, but this falls away after a while and it seems he just has an ornate mind. People who make light of epic battles between good and evil do garner a bit of suspicion to themselves. I'm not sure why it's necessary for them to declare all their loyalties at once in order to be trustworthy. Everything is provisional at this point.

For what it's worth, I myself am very inclined to trust Ishmael from the first words because I know that guy well -- he's me. The roundabout discursiveness, the heavily ironic and quirky sense of humor, the extreme moodiness, the way of throwing about grand themes, the inclination to mock -- have garnered me some spittle-spraying denunciations. I can see we're in for a great ride with someone who will delve deep.

I'm suspicious also of the implications concerning confessional outlet. He talks directly to the reader in ways we have learned to be uncomfortable with about matters he will broach with no one else (except, we suspect, Queequeg). He's one of those observing people who stand always somewhat outside and keep their complexities to themselves. Far from me trusting him, I'm flattered that he trusts me enough to choose me as a confidant.

On this last point there is Melville's decision, after urging by Hawthorne, to up the ante on his previous exotic adventure tales, so in a sense Melville has likewise chosen to take us in confidence -- at the cost of his reputation, as it happened.


message 20: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 12:50PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Until we figure out what he is hiding, I don't think Ishmael can be trusted as a narrator."

I'd be careful about making that assumption. There are other reasons for beginning, "Call me Ishmael" and I think the most obvious is that he's assuming a yarn spinner's style. This is a book that constantly moves in and out of fictional forms.

I read "Call me Ishmael" in the same spirit as I'd read, "Welcome aboard, Ladies and Gentleman. Call me Bill. I"m going to tell you a story..."

I also think, as I've said, the connection between the Biblical Ishamael, the Ishmael of "Moby Dick" and Melville himself is a sense of dislocation -- and he maybe using in Ishmael in that sense.

In describing Queeueg's history, Ishmael has him coming from Kokovoko -- which doesn't actually exist on any map but is none the less truer than those that are on maps. He may be naming himself in the same spirit. He is more truely understood as Ishmael than by some other name.

I also don't know that there's going to be an detailed an explicit connection between the two.

But...well...this is the problem when you have to talk about a novel's major themes and confine the discussion to the first 12 chapters. :-)


message 21: by Petra (new)

Petra I posted this in the pre-sail thread by mistake:

I quickly wiki'd the biblical Ishmael:

- Ishmael is a figure in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur'an and was Abraham's first born child. Ishmael was born of Abraham's marriage to Sarah's handmaiden.

- The name is translated literally as "God has hearkened", suggesting that "a child so named was regarded as the fulfillment of a divine promise".

- the Angel predicted: "And he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren."

- At the age of 14, Ishmael became a free man (exiled) along with his mother. Under Mesopotamian law, their freedom enjoined them from laying claim to any inheritance that Abraham and Sarah had. The Lord’s covenant also made clear Ishmael was not to inherit Abraham’s house.

- Abraham gave him and his mother a supply of bread and water and sent them away. Hagar strayed in the wilderness where the two soon ran out of water. God sent his angel to tell Hagar, "Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation."..."And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer."

- Eventually, his mother found him a wife from the land of Egypt. They had 12 sons who became 12 tribal chiefs throughout the regions from Assyria to the border of Egypt.

- Some Rabbinical commentators say that Ishmael's mother was the Pharaoh's daughter, thereby making Ishmael the grandson of the Pharaoh. This could be why Genesis 17:20 refers to Ishmael as the father of 12 mighty princes.

- Judaism has generally viewed Ishmael as wicked though repentant, whereas Christianity omits any reference to repentance.

-It is also said that Sarah was motivated to demand Ishmael's exile by his sexually frivolous ways because of the reference to his "making merry" (Gen. 21:9), a translation of the Hebrew word "Mitzachek". This was developed into a reference to idolatry, sexual immorality or even murder; some rabbinic sources claim that Sarah worried that Ishmael would negatively influence Isaac, or that he would demand Isaac's inheritance on the grounds of being the firstborn.

- In some Christian biblical interpretations, Ishmael is used to symbolize the older—now rejected—Judaic tradition; Isaac symbolizes the new tradition of Christianity. In the book of Galatians (4:21–31), Paul uses the incident "to symbolize the relationship between Judaism, the older but now rejected tradition, and Christianity".


message 22: by Petra (last edited Nov 04, 2011 10:59AM) (new)

Petra There's a few things here that may be of interest in regards to our Ishmael:
- Ishmael may be considered both divine and a rogue
- he may be in exile and have lost an inheritance
- his parentage may be of high status
- he will be important in the coming pages of this story but only after some trials and hardships (we probably already know this since he's the narrator/main person)
- he may be wicked but unrepentant (Christiam view since Melville would have been or been raised Christian)
- Ishmael represents an old-time tradition/societal way (I'm not sure how society is transforming in Melville's days and how this may reference to our Ishmael)


message 23: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Petra wrote: "There's a few things here that may be of interest in regards to our Ishmael:
- Ishmael may be considered both divine and a rogue
- he may be in exile and have lost an inheritance
- his parent..."


Be careful of overthinking Ishmael. He's the narrator, and the narrator is not necessarily the protagonist.


JenniferD (jooniperd) Petra, thank you for all of that extra information. I found it interesting and helpful.


Debbie (sardonicprincessofcheerfulness) | 55 comments Bill says "On the other hand, Melville never lets us see civilized folk as civilized and his view of the "civilized" can get quite dark as well as comic. In fact, a whaling ship is NOT a place where one might expect to find civilization.

Again, quoting Hardwick, Melville

The whaler, the exploitation of the dead beast, is not a youthful, romantic adventure of bracing experience. So many of one's companions have come sulking away, address unknown , from howling creditors, accusing wives, alert policeman, beggary on shore. Except for a few a sensibility like Melville's own, it is day and night, months, yars with the thoroughly ruined, the outcasts, the drunken, and here and there a welcome ordinary sailor of harmless eccentricity and vagrant skills."


....and yet he writes almost a whole chapter as a paeon of praise for whaling and whalers in Chapter 24 (sorry....not within the parameters of this thread but I couldn't help it)!
"Call me Ishmael". It is so abrupt, with no qualification, that I took it to mean that as a name it would do as well as any.....that it may or may not be his own.

I am really enjoying this book so far. As soon as I read the chapter where Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed, I thought to myself....there is a discussion of whether or not Melville inteded the reader to infer a homosexual relationship in the offing.....these days there always is. I don't think he did intend that. In those days people were more open about showing affection in friendships, men and women both. And even if he did, it is a mere footnote in the overall drama of the writing......which I am thoroughly enjoying....imagery like "with anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket...." and sheer poetry like the poetic description of the Nantucketer at the end of Chapter 14 (sorry again!)


message 26: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 88 comments I'm feeling woefully non-erudite today and in this company. I'm enjoying the reading so much. I was very amazed at the 2nd night scene with Ishmael and Queegueg with it's explicit references to marriage and "throwing his leg over". I wonder at how this was interpreted when it was written.

As for Ishmael, I'm enjoying his tales and waiting for more.


message 27: by Ken (last edited Nov 04, 2011 12:48PM) (new)

Ken Great start to the discussion. I'll make a brief point, then a more labored one.

In brief: I think Ishmael is an unreliable narrator, but then, I think that of the pronoun I in general. Case closed (at least for me).

At length: Like Deb, unless there's a solid trail to the author and his intent, I look askance at the tendency to suspect homosexuality at every turn in literature. Why, in the more genteel 19th century, would Melville be so blatant, I wonder?

Anyway, it's almost a blood sport in some college English Departments, sniffing out homosexual relationships everywhere. The most ridiculous theory is the Huck Finn and Jim one. When I heard a professor offer that one up, I stopped listening. Talk about an unreliable narrator -- he was in front of my class! Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as the Prophet once said.

It's always tempting (and dangerous) to read classics through the lens of our own times. Words like "marriage" and "wedding," which struck me as hyperbole and 19th-century flourishes, carry different weight today. And, as a culture, Americans are quite stand-offish, so the least bit of contact (or in this case, nearness) between men gets everyone's attention. In many cultures, it would be ho-hum.

That said, I admit to not knowing much about Melville personally. Is he the Walt Whitman of the High Seas and I just don't know it? Is he "singing the body electric" literally? If you know something I don't about his story, I'm happy to listen to it, but I'm not convinced this was his intent.


message 28: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue | 88 comments Thanks New England. I agree re: the tendency to read through 21st century lenses. Even as I was reading, part of me was thinking about pre-central heating huddling for warmth, etc. and other scenarios for the above chapter. My mind was being split between centuries.


message 29: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 01:23PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Newengland wrote: "Great start to the discussion. I'll make a brief point, then a more labored one.

In brief: I think Ishmael is an unreliable narrator, but then, I think that of the pronoun I in general. Case clo..."


The notion that the narrator "I" is always unreliable, but I'm not sure why it would be more unreliable than the pronoun "he". Are you make the distinction between an omniscient third person narrator and the narrator as a character?

I'm no Melville expert, but it was interesting as I said, that there's also a scene in a male brothel in Redburn and some extensive description of the men's bodies.

I think Huck and Jim is ridiculous, although interesting. Actually, I think Huck's mind is remarkably free from thoughts of sex -- except for his one obvious crush.

BUT I don't know that the possibility of homoeroticism in Melville is over-reading.

The question is what importance it has if you make the claim for it -- and I'm not sure yet. We've encountered it as a thread. Whether it has a place in a larger reading is uncertain.

Words like "marriage" did not seem like 19th century flourishes to me. But if Americans are quite "stand-offish", so this would seem worth of note.

Who Melville is part of the mystery.

I guess my greater point is that in the case of Mellville, Ishmael, Moby-Dick trying to make final
decisions is less to the point that playing with the different strands of meaning that may be at play.

I am as always an enemy of certainty. :-)


Carol Further along in the book other references could be construed as homosexual in nature to Ismael and Queequog's relationship. Which as Melville says that will be discussed later.

As far as Ismael goes, I think it Melville wanted to call him Ismael because Melville was not of any religious beliefs. Melville was forever questioning God and religion. Ismael according to Islam was the first born child of Abraham and therefore he was the one used as a sacrificial lamb.

One question I have : who was the Tennessee poet Melville alluded too? I know Whitman was around but I don't think it was him. Whitman was born in New York.


message 31: by Ken (new)

Ken Right, Sue. Body warmth. Reminds me of London's "To Build a Fire," wherein we see "carcass warmth." Brrr!

Agree, Bill, re: reading for the "possibility" being legit but, as you said, if it has no pay-off in the greater scheme of the book, what's the difference?

Yes, I do draw distinctions between 3rd-person limited and 3rd-person omniscient. That said, I concede that any POV CAN be unreliable, I just think "I" is the most notorious because we are so well-versed in it from childhood (lying in the 1st-person POV is innate).

I, too, take a shining to ambiguity at times. Thus, the attraction of agnosticism. Who the hell are the religious or the atheists, after all, to lay down laws in black and white as if they know this (or that) absolutely? God and science keep each other guessing....


message 32: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 01:56PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Newengland wrote: "Right, Sue. Body warmth. Reminds me of London's "To Build a Fire," wherein we see "carcass warmth." Brrr!

Agree, Bill, re: reading for the "possibility" being legit but, as you said, if it has ..."


The difficulty is a discussion before the book is read. At this point, I don't know what to make of the homoeroticism (not exactly sexuality).

What is true is that Ishmael's consciousness of the world is not ordinary and understanding it from his point of view not an ordinary understanding.


message 33: by Petra (new)

Petra But, NE, is an "I" POV an unreliable one or is the "I" telling the truth as he/she sees it? We could both watch the same scene, standing side by side, and relate the events with both true versions being different in many ways. It's a matter of perspective, no? As Christ said "we both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?" (to quote Jesus Christ Superstar)
I don't know yet whether Ishmael is unreliable or a witness of truth.


message 34: by Ken (new)

Ken Great question, Petra. My truth may be unreliable. I guess the whole point is that the "unreliable narrator" (an Edgar Allan Poe staple) is only relevant when it is relevant. I think.


Carol Petra I feel instinctively that Ismael is a storyteller, he embellishes and adds to the truth in some areas. He records the facts and fictions almost like a reporter does. So do we believe him, for the most part he is semi-reliable for me.


Charles I, too, tire of the blood sport of hunting homoeroticism. For one thing, it's hard on male friendship, which has had a hard time recently. The 19th C (and earlier) valued this differently, and if it included a touch of homoeroticism, well what did you expect? Sex pervades everything, especially aboard ship. It's also important to remember the shortage of beds -- how many times in literature do characters arrive late at the inn to be told they would be sharing a bed. Two men in bed was hardly unusual.

There's another, technical point at issue here. Narrative-wise, Ishmael would have as hard a time as Holmes did without Watson to talk to. Think how self-regarding and isolated Ishmael would be without a companion, especially one with no prejudice against his ways.The two together structurally add up to much more than themselves severally.

No-one has yet commented on how long it takes the story to introduce Ahab, get on board the Pequod, and get going. This is of course Melville to perfection, which would not be tolerated in a world with more agents than lawyers, but I can't think of another book that reaches its first narrative climax with the appearance of its main character. A magnificent coup de theatre.


message 37: by JenniferD (last edited Nov 04, 2011 02:43PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

JenniferD (jooniperd) Charles wrote: "No-one has yet commented on how long it takes the story to introduce Ahab, get on board the Pequod, and get going."

Maybe because this isn't in the first 11 chapters?? :)

Does anyone want to offer up some theories on Queequeg putting on his boots under the bed?? Melville's explanation of him being neither fully savage nor wholly civilized just didn't cut it for me. This whole scene amused me to no end but I really want to get to the bottom of this curiosity.

(Sorry to interrupt all the smart-talk with a sillier moment in the story!)


Carol Maybe it has something to do with the evil eye in some pacific islander customs, Jennifer. I could not find a specific reason but charms are used to ward off the evil eye. I found the little black idol and Queequeg,s religious customs interesting. I like that Ismael is tolerant except for Queequeg's Ramadan. Then he was concerned about him being stationary for so long and not eating or drinking. Otherwise Ismael accepted all aspects of Queequeg's personality.


message 39: by Petra (last edited Nov 04, 2011 02:57PM) (new)

Petra Jennifer, I found that detail strange, too. Modesty explains dressing/undressing behind a cover of some sort but not in this case. Why would a cannibal be modest about his feet and nothing else? Why would he be modest at all? It struck me as odd, too.

On Ahab's late arrival, I haven't thought about him yet. This story is so interesting that I haven't at all thought about the ship or its crew. I'm looking forward to meeting them all and setting sail.


Carol There is one crew member I don't particularly like and I still have not found him to be redeeming. No it is not Ahab.

I liked the mystery surrounding Ahab and the building up of his entrance. Melville sets the chapters up well so they churn right along without much trouble. The excitement of the voyage is building right now in the preparations and they are interesting and funny to boot. He keeps it light at the moment. The intensity is slowly being developed, I don't know about everyone else, but I am not getting impatient like I do with some books, when the author goes on and on.


JenniferD (jooniperd) Kitty wrote: "Maybe it has something to do with the evil eye in some pacific islander customs, Jennifer. I could not find a specific reason but charms are used to ward off the evil eye..."

I don't have the novel here beside me, but wasn't there an intimation there was a reason for the under the bed activity but it just wasn't shared with us? I feel if it was another custom of Queequeg's, Ishmael would have indicated that, since he was keen to cover so many of his customs with us already.

I totally agree that Ishmael's tolerance and acceptance of Queequeg is wonderful! I love the way they met and then how quickly their kinship formed. While I have found their moments together in bed chatting and smoking interesting, I am not reading into it any deeper.

I wonder how much this familiarity or level of comfort in sharing a bed is just something that was not exceptional at that time? I am thinking of hearing or reading about families and extended kin piled on top of one another, sharing beds, rooms, floors, etc...

I have also enjoyed the pacing of the story. The momentum Melville is creating is quite outstanding. At no point did I stop and wonder "Where's Ahab??" I have just been having so much fun with whatever section I am in.


Carol Jennifer I look on the bed sharing as, like sharing a cup with a good friend. I am not looking for the homosexuality either.


Charles Petra wrote: "But, NE, is an "I" POV an unreliable one or is the "I" telling the truth as he/she sees it? We could both watch the same scene, standing side by side, and relate the events with both true versions ..."
Consult Wayne Booth's Rhetoric Of Fiction, still useful after 60 years. The narrator is the dramatized agent of the author and can reflect events as the author sees fit. Events likewise are the creation of the author. Narrators are virtual people, disembodied and not subject to the laws and expectations governing bodied beings. In the virtual world there is no objective testimony as to the reliability of anyone, narrators included, of any grammatical person. Ishmael's status is a matter of belief, subject to critical discussion based on evidence from the text. I doubt if we have enough text at this point with which to work. It's a better yarn if you trust him.


message 44: by Bill (last edited Nov 04, 2011 07:09PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Petra,

I think the issue of reliability is a function of whether the narrator can be trusted by the reader with regard to the events of the story. It doesn't really matter the narrator distorts events because he has a limited perspective, because he is mildy self-delusional, because he's totally psychotic, or if he's intentionally trying to mislead us. In rare cases, he may be trying to mislead us while literally telling the truth, e.g., most famously in "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."

Fictional narratives present themselves like a courtroom -- a real one -- in which the jury is charged to decide what happened based on the evidence as they see it and their decision whether the witnesses are portraying the truth, whether they are lying, or whether their perceptions are compromised.

Personally, I have found nothing to suggest that Ishmael is misinforming us, either about himself or the events in his narration, nor do I think it would add to the interest if he were. As Charles says, "it's a better yarn to trust him." I don't think Moby-Dick is a "fish story" in that sense of the expression.

Charles,

I think everyone's status is a matter of belief, based on evidence from the text of our lives. Characters in fiction may be more reliable than our real life acquaintances, expect in the special case of world not bound by our normal laws (e.g., Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Yes, fiction is a fictional construct.

But fictional characters including narrators are very much subject to laws and expectations of real people. The difference is merely that when we say, "I don't believe it!" about someone in real life we are expressing surprise. When we say, "I don't believe it!" with regard to fiction, it is a criticism of the writing.


Charles Bill wrote: "But fictional characters including narrators are very much subject to laws and expectations of real people. "

Only pragmatically so, as a function of the market. Not formally so. I think as readers we've become timid as regards what counts as realism, closing off interesting options.

Incidentally, I left out of the list of unreliable fictional objects the author himself. Formally, we do not have any communication with the embodied author, only the author persona, who is a character like all the rest. This whole situation is unresolvable. Consensus and belief are the available tools. (I also forgot to mention Booth's companion volume The Rhetoric Of Irony.)


Sarah (sarahj) | 121 comments Mod
Freud is to blame, really. Freud's theories of sexuality probably had more impact on the interpretation of literature than they did on psychology (ok, I exagerrate). But seriously, there are many ways to interpret a text - formalist, feminist, mythological, deconstructionist - but the Freudian interpretation retains a hold like no other. Melville could hardly escape, he practically threw himself on to the alter.
In any case, I plan to the issue of homosexuality aside and enjoy the story.


message 47: by Ken (last edited Nov 05, 2011 01:46AM) (new)

Ken Recently I visited Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and went to its museums, and walked its streets, and ducked into its small churches, and looked at its small but beautiful "mansions" built on shipping money. This came to mind as I read Melville's description of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in Ch. 6, "The Street," where he treats on the gardens, the pretty maidens, the well-lit (with abundant oil) homes, the "long avenues of green and gold."

The New Bedford scene, I think, is repeated in so many New England and New York shipping ports that are no longer centers of industry or wealth... relics of another time, that is. From the sea came great wealth for those who survived it. And then there were those who wound up on marble tablets as described in Chapter 7, "The Chapel." Portsmouth's churches had those, too.

I'm sure, here in New England, you can see a lot of Moby-Dick in your travels through towns and cities built by the sea and because of it.


Stephanie Bens | 19 comments Bill wrote: "Petra,

I think the issue of reliability is a function of whether the narrator can be trusted by the reader with regard to the events of the story. It doesn't really matter the narrator distorts ..."


Bill,
I like the analogy to the courtroom and jury that you have put forth. I think this clears up my view on Ishmael as narrator.


Stephanie Bens | 19 comments There was some discussion earlier about Queequeq and Ishmael's easy acceptance of him. I saw the possible homo-eroticism there, but I read that as more of a critique against slavery. I don't know much about Melville's point of view on this issue, but given that he was from New York and this is a pre-Civil War novel, I'm reading on the assumption that Melville was against slavery. Therefore, Ishmael's acceptance of Queequeq and his customs is an appeal to readers of Melville's time (and ours) to be more tolerant and to see all humans as people. Should I not be reading it this way?


message 50: by Bill (last edited Nov 05, 2011 06:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill (BillGNYC) | 184 comments Stephanie,

I don't think it's wrong to read it that way at all. But the same passage can reflect more than a single theme.

Melville's point of view on slavery -- and certainly I think race is one of themes of the book -- wouldn't mean there's no homoerotic element there. They are not mutually exclusive.

Don't think I have an axe to grind about this. I was struck by Melville description of being in the bed with Queequeg, and reading further I discovered Moby-Dick wasn't the only book to suggest a homoerotic element in Melville's work.

I don't know how interesting this is in either Moby-Dick or Melville as a whole.


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