The Whale—The Lure of the Sea

Moby Dick Doubloon, Equador, 1840

Wandering through the house with a heavy novel in my hand, I was looking at book shelves and now and then pulling a volume to read the opening lines—I was half way through my yearlong project of reading and re-reading the books in my library and had just finished reading (and reviewing) Jane Smiley’s Barn Blind; I was looking for the next volume to review.

The thick volume I was hefting throughout the house was Herman Melville’s epic story of obsession Moby Dick; or, the Whale. The memorable and dramatic opening lines of the narrator come to mind.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

How many young men have taken to the sea with the words of Ishmael in their mind?

Ishmael, who apparently had survived a devastating, whaling voyage, begins to tell the story of the whaleship Pequod that sailed out of Nantucket Harbor on an ill-fated voyage estimated to last two and a half years.

As his story begins, Ishmael is in New Bedford to ship aboard a whaleship—he is young, strong, and willing, but inexperienced. He enters Spouter Inn to look for food and lodging. “The house is full”, says the landlord, “You haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer’s blanket, have ye?” And, thus, Ishmael and the reader are introduced to the dark skinned, tattooed, harpooner Queequeg. “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Before shipping out there is the serman—no whaler leaves port without a dose of the preacher’s bitter medicine:

Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. “Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!” There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye of the preacher. He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and [began the sermon]

The ribs and terrors in the whale,
Arched over me a dismal gloom,
’While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
And left me deepening down to doom.

A strange sermon by the Minister, himself a seafaring man, warns of the whale. Did any reader still hope for a happy ending?

Ishmael had been at sea aboard the Pequod for several days before Captain Ahab appeared on the quarterdeck and addressed the crew:

Receiving the top-maul from Starbuck, [Ahab] advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming. “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed wale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw, whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!”

That “gold ounce” riveted to the main was a gold doubloon minted in Quito, Ecuador about 1840. As the waleship Pequod continues its track across the oceans towards the fateful encounter with the white whale, Captain and crew keep that golden round in mind.

The front of the Equatorial doubloon features the image of Liberty and the obverse has the stars of a Quito night sky engraved above the equatorial sun looking down on three volcanic mountains near Quito. On one mountain roosts the carrion bird of the Andes, the Condor. Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb will soliloquize over the meaning of this image in a long discursive chapter that anticipates the first sighting of the white whale.

First Mate Starbuck overhears the captain muse aloud:

“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here, —three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab, the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, …”

Surely, the Captain is not in sound mind. As the captain goes below, he takes a closer look at the coin:

“No fairy fingers can have pressed the gold, but devil’s claws must have left their moldings there since yesterday,” murmured Starbuck to himself, leaning against the bulwarks.”

The stage is being set for the tragedy of crew and ship, but practical Seaman Stubb sees the truth of the coin:

“I see nothing here but a round thing madeof gold, and woever raises a certain whale, this round thing belongs to him. So what’s all this staring been about? It is worth sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine hundred and sixty cigars. …”

This is slow, sometime tedious, reading, but the images are powerful and well though out; having once read the book from cover to cover, I now enjoy browsing a few chapters from time-to-time. I reacquaint myself with the story and rediscover how Melville tells his story, and then I put the novel back on the shelf.

Ironically, Moby Dick was not a success when first published in 1851. The publication history can be found on the Herman Melville web site.

Cable TV producer Starz announced the showing of the first of its Encore Originals —an adaptation of the Herman Melville classic “Moby Dick— August, 2011. For me no adaptation can match the detail and realism of Melville’s 19th century whaling world, but I’m open to watching the cable adaptation.

The cast of the Starz’ adaptation includes: William Hurt(Ahab), Ethan Hawke(Starbuck), Charlie Cox(Ishmael), Eddie Marsan(Stubb), and Raoul Trujillo(Queequeg). Donald Sutherland plays the roll of Father Mapple, who gives the prophetic sermon on the theme of Noah and the Whale, as the Pequod readies for departure.

The centerpiece of the Nantucket Historical Association’s new Whaling Museum is a dramatic articulation of a whale:

It’s fearsome to contemplate the skeleton of a sperm whale: with menacing ivory teeth, the massive skull, and, forty-six feet up into the ceiling, the tip of its spine.

Visit the museum on Broad Street in Nantucket MA or read about it online to learn more about the sea and whaling.

Day 62: Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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