Thursday, January 12, 2012

Moby Dick Read-Along: Chapters 1-26

Well, here we are at the end of chapter 26! (Right? If you're not caught up yet, just come back to this post when you are. It's not going anywhere.)

Each week, we'll offer a summary of what has happened in the book so far, a few discussion questions and our thoughts. Feel free to add your own questions, answers, or general thoughts in the comments or on your own blog. If you leave the link to your post in the comments we'll add it at the bottom of the post.

Next week, we'll be reading chapters 29-55.

Ok. So here's what's happened so far:
In chapter one, we meet our narrator, and are invited to call him Ishmael. Ishmael loves the ocean. Or, rather, he explains that to him, going to sea is his alternative to suicide. That's kind of the same as "love," right?

Our new friend Ishmael begins his story. Once upon a time, Ishmael decided to go a-whaling. He used to work on a merchant ship, but that work just wasn't doing it for him anymore and now he wants to kill whales like a real man. On his way to Nantucket, Ishmael stops in New Bedford, where he finds a gloomy old inn to stay for the night. Actually, the inn-keeper informs him there is really no room in the inn, unless he wants to share a bed with a Harpooner. Ishmael hesitantly agrees, and this is how he meets Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal. Ishmael and Queequeg are fast friends and snuggle into bed together for the night. In the morning, Ishmael eats breakfast then visits a church with a strange pulpit and a peculiar chaplain. He listens to a sermon on Jonah and the whale.

Ishmael and Queequeg pal around, hug, and smoke together. That night, as they lay in bed together, Queequeg tells Ishmael about his island and how he came to be a harpooner. The next day, the two set out for Nantucket where all the whaling ships set out from. While on the schooner, Queequeg throws a man up in the air, then saves him when he falls in the water. Queequeg is a hero. Ishmael likes him even more.

They arrive at Nantucket, which is flat, sandy, and has no trees. Ishmael and Queequeg stay at an inn and eat delicious chowder. Queequeg tells Ishmael that his wooden idol told him that Ishmael must choose which ship they should sign up for, so Ishmael chooses the Pequod. He goes aboard meets the owners of the ship - Bildad and Peleg.

When he comes back, Ishmael finds the door to his and Queegueg's inn room locked. He freaks out and thinks that Queequeg is dead. Once he breaks open the door, Ishmael finds Queequeg sitting calmly and worshiping his idol for Ramadan. Ishmael tells Queequeg that his pagan ways are silly and that he should abandon them. Queequeg doesn't respond. Ishmael assumes that Queequeg just can't see outside his own point of view.

The next day, Queequeg also signs up for the Pequod. He and Ishmael meet a stranger named Elijah who warns them about the ships mysterious captain Ahab whose leg was bitten off by a whale.

The Pequod is stocked with provisions and ready to set sail. On Christmas day, the ship goes to sea. Ishmael has still to meet Ahab, who has not come up from below deck. Ishmael goes on a rant about how great and important whaling is, then describes the ship's chief mate Starbuck.

Soo ... Connie and I noticed that this book starts out kind of, well, boring. Ishmael does not spare us any details. After awhile, though, I started to kinda like the short, contained chapters. It's easier to keep ahold of what's going on especially with those handy chapter titles. It started to grow on me, also (Connie).

How about Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship? Weird, right? Do you think their friendship is genuine? I thought there was quite a bit of homoerotic tension between Ishmael and Queequeg. I'd heard this before about the book, but I wasn't expecting it to be so strong ... it was almost distracting. Do you think Melville meant to do this?

I also noticed that there are a lot of polarities in this narrative. An obvious one is the constant descriptions of both physical and metaphorical light and dark. Why do you think Melville uses polarities like this? I think he does it to echo the Manichean rhetoric of the Bible. Not sure why yet. But yeah. Just a thought.

In chapter 24, Ishmael passionately defends whaling. From our point of view here in 2012, when we no longer use whale oil for light and whales are endangered, what did you think of this chapter?

How did you like Ishmael's narration? Did you like or dislike the fact that he goes off on tangents? I both liked and disliked it. The things Ishmael chooses to tell us say a lot about his character. Often he'll state his opinion, then do the opposite. For example, he says he isn't judgmental of paganism, then proceeds to tell Queequeg that his worshipping is over the top and his religion is silly. Come on, Ishmael.

Something that really stood out to me in these chapters was Melville's religious commentary. You could hardly read a page without some biblical allusion or discussion of Christianity versus Paganism. What do you think he's trying to say about religion? 

I think he criticizes Christianity to a certain extent, or at least self-righteous, ignorant Christians, who assume non-Christians are going to hell, even though they themselves don't love and serve their fellow men. He says of Queequeg,  

"For all his tatooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself -- 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. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." 

Then, when he saves the sailor who had mocked him from drowning, he says that Queequeg

"seemed to be saying to himself-- 'It's a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.'"

I marked a lot more quotes like these, so if you are interested, I will share some in the comments.

Furthermore, what do you make of the recounting of Jonah and the whale? What do you think Melville is trying to say about whaling, or about Christianity, by spending so much time recounting this particular Bible story? Or is it merely long because Melville is obviously a fan of great detail and not in a hurry to get through any part of the book? 

After telling the story, the preacher says that he does not tell the story "to be copied for his sin" but to advertise him as "a model for repentance." And he describes Jonah's repentance as "not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment." Is this Melville's personal belief? Is it in some way foreshadowing? I found this part very intriguing; I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

I also appreciated Melville's humor. It really broke up the lengthy narrative. What were some of your favorite lines? One of mine was this:

"The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!"

All right, this is plenty long for one post! We look forward to discussing this further with you in the comments, and don't forget, next week will be through chapter 55.

Your thoughts:

 Melissa @ Avid Reader

Shelley @ Book Clutter

Lu @ Regular Rumination

Katie @ Old English Rose

Jerikavonalexandra @ A Very Disoriented Reader