Moby Dick, Chapters 3 – 5


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.


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.



"Queequeg" Rockwell Kent illustration

“Queequeg” Rockwell Kent illustration


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

Moby Dick, Chapters 1 and 2



In Chapter 1 our hero introduces himself as simply “Ishmael.” No last name, no identifying details. Victorian era writers used this technique often, to obscure details and shroud a book in mystery. Sophistication in creating amorphous settings wasn’t all that well developed, I suppose. That, or it didn’t take as much to let the reader know the author’s intent. It seems silly now but contemporary readers would have expected it.

Some things about the classics don’t translate as well as others. These things are what makes a work seem “dated,” putting off the iGeneration, but once you get past that you open yourself up to a whole world of beautiful, often rambling prose. Neither of these qualities are absent from some of the best books written today. A lot of the books I adore are stripped down, bare bones prose but I also love more florid styles that soar with poetry and detail. Not everything has changed.

Melville’s prose isn’t technically concise but neither is he as loquacious as, say, Dickens or Tolstoy. His writing about the sea is from the heart. In this first chapter he waxes lyrical on how all young men yearn for adventure, Ishmael expressing his desire to be gone before he either roughs someone up or commits a heinous crime. What’s surprising, in a good way, is Melville does so humorously:

” Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. “

And really that’s all Chapter 1 is, the set up for Ishmael to get out of New York City and find a whaling ship. Before chapter’s end he leads in with his description of whales and whaling:

” Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air. “

Ah, “one grand hooded phantom…” Have a guess who that could be.

Chapter 2 describes Ishmael’s trip from NYC to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from which lots of whaling expeditions set out. He doesn’t bring much, which is true of sailors in general, as per anything else I’ve ever read about them. It’s a Saturday in December and he must find cheap shelter until the ships leave the following Monday.


New Bedford, MA - Harbor

New Bedford, MA – Harbor


The place he finds, after rejecting others that look too expensive,  is The Spouter Inn, owned by one Peter Coffin. He balks at the name – it does give the impression of a bad omen – but decides this is the best he can afford on his very limited budget:

” It was a queer sort of place—a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. “In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon,” says an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant—”it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.” True enough, thought I, as this passage occurred to my mind—old black-letter, thou reasonest well. Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper—(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals. ”

It helps to know the definition and origin of the term “Euroclydon”:

1. (Christian Religious Writings / Bible) a stormy wind from the north or northeast that occurs in the Levant, which caused the ship in which St Paul was travelling to be wrecked (Acts 27:14)

I wonder how tongue in cheek Ishmael’s reference to the Bible is. Maybe he’s being a wicked little sprite or maybe he’s referring to  some other book. In either case, a little dramatic how Melville writes about something as simple as a strong wind. Lots of “thous” and words ending in “-eth.” I can see how off-putting this is for the modern reader. I was an English major and I still don’t care for it.

Isn’t the description of the inn gorgeous? “… gable-ended old house, one side palsied… leaning over sadly.” Can’t you just picture it? It’s so East Coast, salty, old traditional sea port. It’s old for this country, I mean. Others may find it amusing and quaint we consider the 19th century so long ago when they trace their own seafaring traditions back centuries. But New England has a distinctive look and feel representative of our seafaring history.

This particular passage quoted above reminds me of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. The two authors were close friends, to Mrs. Hawthorne’s reported despair, so it’s possible one influenced the other. Interestingly, both books were published the same year – 1851.

As an aside, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft called The House of the Seven Gables “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature.” He didn’t mean that in the modern sense. It had an influence on his own writing, “weird” from the standpoint of dark and ghostly. Yet another of those things about 19th century writing you have to run through the translator, which probably puts off readers with less patience.

Yes, yes, that explains all the FOOTNOTES. Sorry, students.


Two chapters in and I’m wondering what on earth has put me off Moby Dick this long, aside from that nasty nun. Then again, I haven’t reached the chapters featuring pages and pages of information about blubber. I’m not sure anyone, save a marine biologist, cares so much about blubber.

Early days yet but things are going swimmingly so far! And, believe it or not, I’m blowing through it without including nearly as much detail about the literary criticism and commentary I could. I’m restraining myself, in order to get through the primary read without bogging down in interpretation and such. There will be some, sorry to tell some of you but neither am I consulting Big Encyclopedias of What Nots in Literature. I.e. Google.

Note:  I have written more about Melville on the Tumblr blog I’m using as a companion to Bluestalking. If you just can’t get enough of Moby and Herman go have a peek. It’s not the only topic running there but there’s supplementary material to be had amongst the other stuff I’m posting.

The link to my Tumblr blog is on my sidebar, should you ever care to pop over and see what I’m about over there. Even if you don’t care, it’s still there.

Avast ye, matey!




My Nemesis, Moby Dick



It’s taken me a very long time getting back to Moby Dick. In college I tried, oh how I tried, to make it through the book without falling asleep. And I’m not sure that’s a comment on the novel myself, as much as my exhaustion having so much to read and so little time, especially as I again last night – very late – read Chapter One and was entranced by the language and the humor.

Yes, humor!

In college I “read” the book and wrote a paper on it, all without having actually gotten through it to any appreciable extent. I no longer remember how far I did make it but I testify it was nowhere near far enough to write a paper on it with any degree of coherence. How did I do it? I read about the book, dipped into some of the key scenes and received a respectable B on the paper.

The professor, as back story, despised me. I don’t mean in an adolescent accusation way, either. It was full-out hatred. What makes it all the more pathetic is she was – and is, she’s still doddering along – a nun, who ought to have known better than to piss off God by hating me. The situation was, I had recently broken up with the son of a family she turned out to be friendly with and she thought I was no better than the village whore because of it. Actually, the buffoon played me for a fool and dumped me but she may not have realized that.

Neither here nor there.

All this made getting past her with a B felt all the sweeter. The old hag. She’s the same woman who had the audacity to tell me later, in a meeting we scheduled regarding another assignment, I should get out more and perhaps I’d meet a nice young man to marry. I kid you not. And, at the time, I was engaged. What did all this have to do with the assignment and/or meeting? Absolutely nothing.

In any event, that’s the back story of my experience with Moby Dick and I am just now getting back to the book. I’m Irish. I hold grudges. It’s a simple truth. And that nun must be 110 by now, I can’t believe she’s still in the land of the living. I thought she was near death when I was in college so it’s a mind-blower she’s kept alive this long. Only the evil die incredibly old?




I became all the more keen on reading Moby Dick after visiting Melville’s House in Pittsfield, MA, back in 2007. It was the year our vacation, strangely enough, allowed time for my Dead Author Tour. I consider it strange because I’m the only reader of classic literature in my family and my kids have next to no patience being force-marched from author’s home to author’s home. Why they humored me I don’t know to this day but I’ll take it.







I love photographing things authors would have touched, original items from the house. Imagine his hand turning his doorknob. Such a mundane occurrence to him but such a poignant reminder he existed to me.


IMG_1055-2Melville’s barn, from his house.


More on Melville and Moby Dick forthcoming.