I recently read Moby Dick, because I wanted to immerse myself in Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal sailor, who when you look the one way is a tough peasanty sailor and the other way is a tragic hero of Hamlet proportions. And it is true, it is all in the book: the obsession which becomes a symbol for everything wrong in the world. The conflict between modernising man and nature. Fate’s cracked heels. It is truly great stuff.

Captain Ahab is named rather unfortunately for King Ahab from the bible (biblical allusions pepper this book), the king who envied Naboth’s garden, plots and kills Naboth. Elijah the prophet then says he will die an ignominious death and true, he ended up with the pigs licking his blood. It is of course a metaphorical naming, a warning against obsessional desire. Eljah pitches up in the book too, as a crazy old beggar, who speaks in riddles but warns off the narrator Ishmael.

Ahab’s story when it comes out late in the book is rather pitiful. He is a man dedicated to the sea, from a young man he has sailed whaling ships around the world, never settling down. He is the epitome of hardwork, of the PrHe gets married late in life, over 40, but gets to sleep with his wife once before leaving again to sea, only once meeting his child. Then Moby Dick, the Great White Whale, crunches off his leg. Delirious and feverish, half-bled to death on the trip home, Ahab begins to see the whale as the root of all evil and strife. He swears revenge.

When the boat he is sailing on, The Pequod, is far from land he convinces the crew to undertake his mission of retribution with the following words:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.”

The crew goes wild for his rhetoric, and even the stable first-mate Starbuck, relinquishes his free will to Ahab’s mad desire.

Although Starbuck mutters under his breath, “God help me, god help us all.”

In fact, this is my favourite part of the whole book. The rest of the paragraph reads:

But in his joy at the enchanted, tacit acquiesence of the mate, Ahab did not hear his foreboding invocation; nor yet the low laugh from the hold; nor yet the presaging vibrations of the winds in the cordage; nor yet the hollow flap of the sails against the masts, as for a moment their hearts sank in.[…]

This is the precise moment, the moment of no return, that changes this novel from a hearty intense sea adventure into a grand tragedy. The signs are there to be read, but no one is watching.

In the end, and rapidly, Ahab realises his fate is utterly twisted up in that of the whale: “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” And the whale vicious to the last takes out the whole ship and everyone drowns. Except Ishmael who is rescued by a coffin which floats up.

Several other of my favourite bits:
Pip, the cabin boy jumps overboard in a moment of terror, and floating around and thinking he will never be rescued the loneliness of the sea swallows up his mind. After being hauled back on board, he becomes the Joker to Captain Ahab’s madness. His own madness is a counterpoint.

Queegueg, the savage cannibal, has tattoos all over his body. They were inscribes by a great prophet, and they describe a complete theory of the universe. Unfortunately, the prophet dies before he can explain them, and Queequeg often spends time puzzling over the meaning. his own skin is indecipherable.

The story of the Pequod is at least partly based on a true story of the whaling ship, The Essex. The Essex was rammed 4000 kilometres off the West coast of South America. The sailors on board set out on the whaleboats, with practically no supplies, and resorted to cannibalism to survive. More on the Essex later… but for now, the Raft of the Medusa:

Scrape away, boys, scrape away. | 2009 | Fiction, Quotes | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments (0)

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