Literary Fiction, Melville, Herman

Moby-Dick Read-Along: Chapters 1-20

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4I just finished reading the chapters for the first part of the read-along, so while they are fresh in my mind, I will put down in words the parts of the reading that stood out to me.

The narrator, Ishmael, suddenly has the urge to become a harpoonist. At a Nantucket inn, he meets a Polynesian man named Queequeg. Ishamel is surprised by the affable character of this “pagan”. His religion and diet are quite different from Ishamael’s Presbyterian upbringing; yet, Queequeg is kind and respectful toward others. Ishmael and Queequeg soon become friends.

Like Roof Beam Reader, I too was struck by the biblical imagery in the story. Ishmael visits a church in Nantucket and listens to a sermon on the story of Jonah. I really enjoyed the sermon. The minister’s descriptions of Jonah and his adventures are such that sailors and their families (the members of his congregation) can relate to the biblical character.

I give you an extract from the sermon. [Jonah has run away from God and has climbed aboard a sailing vessel]: “So Jonah’s Captain prepares to test the length of Jonah’s purse, ere he judges him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it’s assented to. Then the Captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive; but at the same time resolves to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the Captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, anyway, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage. ‘Point out my state-room, Sir,’ says Jonah now, ‘I’m travel-weary; I need sleep.” “Thou look’st like it,’ says the Captain, ‘there’s thy room.’ Jonah enters, and would lock the door, but the lock contains no key. Hearing him foolishly fumbling there, the Captain laughs lowly to himself, and mutters something about the door of convicts’ cells being never allowed to be locked within.” 

The interaction between Jonah and the Captain is very realistically painted. This is such a powerful retelling of a story everyone knows. It is powerful mostly because the minister’s audience can really relate to the characters. They too are sailors.

The characters’ names are also very interesting. In Nantucket where most people are Quakers, people have biblical names. So, what is the significance of the sailors’ names in Moby-Dick? Captain Peleg tells Ishmael that Captain Ahab is nothing like his biblical namesake. Still, it may be valuable to know the biblical origins of the characters’ names. In the Bible, Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar. He was not chosen by God to be a patriarch of Israel but became a father to the nomadic people. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is a wanderer. He is not content to stay in one place, but is constantly looking for new adventures on the high seas. When I’m reading, I can’t help but think of The Deadliest Catch.

Peleg is a character whose namesake I have difficulty identifying. According to Wikipedia, Peleg was a father of the Hebrew people but a more ancient one than Abraham. He is not well-described in the Bible, so his personality is somewhat of a mystery.

Captain Bildad’s namesake was Job’s friend Bildad who blamed Job’s sins for his suffering. In Moby-Dick, Captain Bildad is a harsh, religious person. Ishmael points out that Bildad is Quaker and therefore opposed to human violence; yet, he is also greedy and has no problem with whaling. What with Melville’s story-telling, I am sure I will learn much more about Bildad’s character in the chapters to come.

Elijah is a mysterious old sailor Ishmael meets on the loading dock. He makes a bunch of prophetic statements that Ishamel either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand. The biblical character was a prophet too, so Moby-Dick character closely matches that of his namesake.

We haven’t met Captain Ahab yet. Elijah and Captain Peleg disagree about Ahab’s character. The biblical Ahab was a king of Judah and the husband of the notorious Jezebel. He received many upsetting prophesies from Elijah. Needless to say, Elijah and Ahab were not friends.

That’s all for now. I am really enjoying the book so far. I am not bored yet by Ishmael’s tangents and descriptions.

Favorite Passage

“The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Biblical language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business which a Noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

8 thoughts on “Moby-Dick Read-Along: Chapters 1-20”

  1. That’s a great synopsis. I think Father Mapple’s sermon is so important in understanding the character of Ahab. To me Mapple and Ahab are polar opposites, in that Mapple has surrendered his life to another (God), while Ahab . . . well, you’ll see. They make an interesting contrast.

  2. I am not bored yet by Ishmael’s tangents and descriptions.

    Then apparently he has not yet begun the anatomy lesson. 😉 😆

    1. (I stopped half way through this novel about a year ago, but not for being bored. I just read too many books at once. I actually enjoy the novel and intend to finish it, eventually.) 🙂

  3. I read the book one year ago.
    It was my first classic ever – well,I did previously read Passage in India,but that was for High School.

    Like you,I love the first part! 🙂
    There’s a quote that I particularly like: ”How is it that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss?”

    And here’s another one:
    ”Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.”

    The storyline is great,but I got a bit bored with the endless digressions,and as result,lost interest in the book.However I know some people who rank Moby Dick among their favourites,so I don’t know how you’ll react.I sincerely hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I didn’t! Happy reading! 🙂

    1. Thank you! I have braced myself for the boring bits. I have vowed to get through those parts. I hope that helps me, but maybe Melville should have had an editor look at his book prior to publication. 🙂

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