Moby Dick, Chapters 3 – 5

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In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement. Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all broken and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance, now wildly elbowed, fifty years ago did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset. And that harpoon—so like a corkscrew now—was flung in Javan seas, and run away with by a whale, years afterwards slain off the Cape of Blanco. The original iron entered nigh the tail, and, like a restless needle sojourning in the body of a man, travelled full forty feet, and at last was found imbedded in the hump.

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Melville sets the stage at the Spouter Inn as a dark, mysteriously exotic, testosterone-infused gathering place where whalers spend their time in port. It’s described as “dusky,” there are dusty, preserved animals staring with dead eyes and a painting on the wall illustrates the threat of the Great Leviathan – Moby Dick.

[Dramatic pause.]

Ishmael is dismayed to hear there’s no room available for him but he could share a bed with a harpooner. The innkeeper, having fun with him, talks up the mystery whaler to the point Ishmael is beside himself with anxiety:

No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply. Nor was there any earthly reason why I as a sailor should sleep two in a bed, more than anybody else; for sailors no more sleep two in a bed at sea, than bachelor Kings do ashore. To be sure they all sleep together in one apartment, but you have your own hammock, and cover yourself with your own blanket, and sleep in your own skin.

The more I pondered over this harpooneer, the more I abominated the thought of sleeping with him. It was fair to presume that being a harpooneer, his linen or woollen, as the case might be, would not be of the tidiest, certainly none of the finest. I began to twitch all over. Besides, it was getting late, and my decent harpooneer ought to be home and going bedwards. Suppose now, he should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?

He tries squirming uncomfortably on a hard, wooden bench, trying and failing to put the furniture together in such a way he can settle down to sleep. Eventually he gives in and admits he may as well suck it up and be a man. He’ll have to throw caution to the wind and hope the harpooner isn’t smelly. Or murderous, or anything else he’s afraid he may be. His one requirement is he doesn’t want to go to sleep first. He vows to wait until he can catch sight of the mystery man before he jumps into bed next to a stranger.

You can just see the landlord’s eyes sparkling as he continues teasing the poor lad:

But though the other boarders kept coming in by ones, twos, and threes, and going to bed, yet no sign of my harpooneer.

“Landlord!” said I, “what sort of a chap is he—does he always keep such late hours?” It was now hard upon twelve o’clock.

The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. “No,” he answered, “generally he’s an early bird—airley to bed and airley to rise—yes, he’s the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don’t see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can’t sell his head.”

“Can’t sell his head?—What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?” getting into a towering rage. “Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?”

“That’s precisely it,” said the landlord, “and I told him he couldn’t sell it here, the market’s overstocked.”

“With what?” shouted I.

“With heads to be sure; ain’t there too many heads in the world?”

“I tell you what it is, landlord,” said I quite calmly, “you’d better stop spinning that yarn to me—I’m not green.”

“May be not,” taking out a stick and whittling a toothpick, “but I rayther guess you’ll be done BROWN if that ere harpooneer hears you a slanderin’ his head.”

“I’ll break it for him,” said I, now flying into a passion again at this unaccountable farrago of the landlord’s.

“It’s broke a’ready,” said he.

“Broke,” said I—”BROKE, do you mean?”

“Sartain, and that’s the very reason he can’t sell it, I guess.”

Long story short, the harpooner is Queequeg and the head he’s selling is shrunken, from Fiji. This is a real whaler, a strapping big man, skin whipped leathery by the salty wind, not a poser kid… Not that I’m naming names.

Hilarious. And I do mean hilarious, when Queequeg finally arrives Ishmael’s in bed, having just dozed off, waking when the big man shuffles in:

Even as it was, I thought something of slipping out of the window, but it was the second floor back. I am no coward, but what to make of this head-peddling purple rascal altogether passed my comprehension. Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him, and demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him.

Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years’ War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country. I quaked to think of it. A peddler of heads too—perhaps the heads of his own brothers. He might take a fancy to mine—heavens! look at that tomahawk!

After Ishmael yells at the landlord for leaving him with this clearly dangerous man, he’s reassured he’s not going to be murdered. Queequeg is a harmless island native, tattooed all over his body. He looks menacing but clearly isn’t. The night passes peacefully.  The next morning he wakes to find Queequeg’s arm thrown over him, as in a hug. Ishmael’s itching to get going, to get up and start the day, to get his bearings and figure out his plans:

Throwing aside the counterpane, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage’s side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby. A pretty pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk! “Queequeg!—in the name of goodness, Queequeg, wake!” At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt; and presently, he drew back his arm, shook himself all over like a Newfoundland dog just from the water, and sat up in bed, stiff as a pike-staff, looking at me, and rubbing his eyes as if he did not altogether remember how I came to be there, though a dim consciousness of knowing something about me seemed slowly dawning over him. Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. When, at last, his mind seemed made up touching the character of his bedfellow, and he became, as it were, reconciled to the fact; he jumped out upon the floor, and by certain signs and sounds gave me to understand that, if it pleased me, he would dress first and then leave me to dress afterwards, leaving the whole apartment to myself. Thinks I, Queequeg, under the circumstances, this is a very civilized overture; but, the truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy, say what you will; it is marvellous how essentially polite they are. I pay this particular compliment to Queequeg, because he treated me with so much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding. Nevertheless, a man like Queequeg you don’t see every day, he and his ways were well worth unusual regarding.

Oh, Ishmael. You goofy kid.

Ishmael finally realizes he’s been messed with as he’s making his way downstairs for breakfast. The landlord was having him on, taking advantage of his youth and inexperience – and Queequeg’s menacing appearance and harmless, kind heart – but he’s okay with it. He decides it’s fair enough and brushes it off. Things always do seem better in the light of day, that’s true. He was tired and anxious, easily fooled. The landlord saw his opportunity and ran with it.

Maybe the kid will be okay, after all. He certainly got his just desserts for coming in so high and mighty, thinking he was too good to share a bed when he himself is planning to go to sea and live life in the rough. He got off lightly, really. Something tells me living in a ship won’t be paradise. And it won’t smell pretty, either…

Q sits down at the breakfast table, using his harpoon to grab pieces of beef for his breakfast, sitting tall and dignified. Ishmael finishes his morning ablutions, then heads out to have a look at New Bedford.

So ends Chapters 3 – 5. Melville’s taken three chapters to describe the inn and give the reader background on two of the major characters. Three very short chapters, I should qualify. So very entertaining and short I took great pleasure in reading and re-reading them. They’re just so funny, written in a florid but very tongue-in-cheek style, I may just read back through everything I’ve finished so far before I go forward. How often do I do that? Pretty much never.

This book contains so many little nuggets of gold, it’s just a joy. I always had this impression Moby Dick was a dry, dull and boring book only the most dedicated readers ever made it through. Its reputation is so overblown. It’s like War and Peace, which isn’t a difficult novel at all. It’s off-putting simply because it’s really, really long. And Russian character names are tough, that’s true. I’ll give you that. Their tradition of calling everyone by multiple names slows the reading speed a lot but that shouldn’t put readers off. Most editions have a character list. If not, you can find one. No excuses! I have little patience with them to start with and there is no reason a person can’t take a few seconds to glance at a list now and then.

PLEASE. Be like Ishmael and man up, for God’s sake.

Moby Dick is so much easier, compared with War and Peace. There’s no culture clash and you certainly can’t confuse these character names. And did I mention it’s delightfully playful, even a bit snarky?

I had absolutely no idea. No idea. Or I’d have read it before I wrote my paper, all those many long years ago.

Again, why have I put off reading this book for so long?

Avast, me hearties! I shall return.

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"Queequeg" Rockwell Kent illustration
“Queequeg” Rockwell Kent illustration

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Don’t forget! There’s much more of Moby and me on Bluestalking’s Tumblr Blog!

3 thoughts on “Moby Dick, Chapters 3 – 5

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