The Compulsive Reader: Classics Corner: Moby-Dick: The First 25 Chapters

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Classics Corner: Moby-Dick: The First 25 Chapters

When I sat down to try and figure out what to say about the first 25 chapters of Moby-Dick, I was a little flummoxed. I have a few pages of notes in a notebook, some miscellaneous scraps of paper on which I’d written page numbers and various bits of punctuation, and lot of conversations with HB to go off of.

It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to read Moby-Dick,” or “Moby-Dick is really, really dense.” It’s kind of another to actually sit down and plod through Melville’s prose (and that’s what you do, you plod) and try to comprehend it. If you’re not paying attention, trying to understand it is probably how I’d imagine watching TV on drugs would be like (and just to be clear, I’ve never taken drugs). Melville has this tendency to write paragraph-long sentences or focus on one little thing for so long that you lose track of what was even going on in the first place, and then he veers right back into the action and you’re just like, “Wait…what?” It gets marginally better if you read it aloud, which is what HB and I did with Chapter 16. But all that really accomplished was making me slightly hoarse and painfully aware of certain words I do not precisely know how to pronounce. (Apoplexy?)

But here is an English major secret: When it comes to tough reading, sometimes it’s easier to know what is going on and what will happen so you can follow along and absorb the prose rather than just sit there going, “What the hell?” With that in mind, I asked HB to summarize Moby-Dick for us.

Her response?

“Whale. (Blubber.) Revenge. The End.”

I admire her concision.

So, maybe a comprehensive summary is a little too ambitious at this point. Instead, I decided to focus on four things:


The important characters thus far:

Caption me! See below.
Ishmael: The rather wordy narrator of our story. Ishmael is bored with life, so what does he do? He decides to sign three years of his life away to a whaling ship because he wants to see how it’s done and see the world while he’s at it. Despite the fact that we really don’t learn a whole lot about him in 25 chapters, he seems pretty intelligent and observant, and we know he is a smooth talker.

Queequeg (Nicknames : Quohog and Hedgehog):  Unexpected companion to Ishmael and rumored cannibal. The two meet at a boarding house while waiting to sign on to a ship. Despite Ishmael’s reluctance to share a room with a “cannibal,” the two strangely become rather good friends. Queequeg carries around his harpoon and is generally an intimidating guy. He is from an island in the South Seas and is the son of a king, but left to find adventure on a whaling ship.

Peleg: Captain and co-owner of the Pequod, the ship that Ishmael and Queequeg sign on to. He is an old Quaker and quite a character. He interrogates Ishmael before he lets him sign on, and though he appears to be a nicer guy than his companion Bildad, he is also a bit livelier than what you’d probably expect a Quaker to be.

Bildad: Captain and co-owner of the Pequod. He is kind of a stick in the mud and generally seems to disapprove of everyone. He also comes off as a bit tight-fisted when haggling with Peleg and Ishmael over Ishmael’s wages. Melville practically devotes an entire two pages to describing him, but what mostly stuck out to me was the line in chapter 16, “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness.” (HB and I had an “aha!” moment here. This could be her motto.)

Elijah: The creeper lurking around the Pequod when Queequeg and Ishmael sign on. He goes on about Captain Ahab (whom we’ve yet to see) and basically tells the guys they’ve signed their souls away. He says, “A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon,” which kind of made me laugh. He’s got a real way with words, doesn’t he? It’d be so easy to just write him off as a loony, except that Melville named him Elijah, which is just a Biblical allusion slapping you in the face (Elijah was a great Old Testament prophet).

(Aside: So, I guess that’s what aggravates me about this book. Moby-Dick is long and tedious and I’ll read pages and pages of boring stuff that makes me grit my teeth and want to skim over entire chapters and generally hate Melville, but then he’ll come along with some brilliant lines or observations. And it just makes me hate him.)


What’s eating Ishmael? He claims that he’s bored and wants adventure, but I suspect that there is more to him than that. Whether he exists as an intellectual sailor to witness whatever the heck Ahab will do later or what, I don’t know yet. But honestly, I can think of better things to do than join a whaling ship for three years just because you’re feeling a little restless.


Religion seems to play a big role in the story and how Ishmael reacts to it is interesting. First, there is the sermon on Jonah that Ishmael grapples with. Then, he remarks that what one believes doesn’t really matter to him, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. He even joins Queequeg in the rituals for his little god, Yoko. Yet, when Queequeg has his Ramadan and pretty much checks out for a day, freaking Ishmael out, Ishmael berates Queequeg for his practices. This is interesting to me because it doesn’t look like Ishmael is totally open to religious freedom in this case. Perhaps our narrator is going through his own personal crisis?


Have I mentioned lately how awesome HB is? I didn't even know things like this existed!

Phew. All that and the ship’s only just sailed. I’m flying out on Sunday for BEA, but I have the best of intentions to read this on the plane, and HB and I will be Skyping. There’s no slacking in the Classics Corner. (So if you’re reading this in the vain hope that I’ll answer all of your questions about this book so you can write a paper without having read it, HA. Good luck with that. I wouldn't trust me.)

Questions? Confused? (Me too.) Comment below!

Did you like the cartoon of Ishmael and Queequeg? I find it hysterically funny and Ishmael's grin a little too creepy. Let's play Caption That! The most clever caption will win some swag (and maybe an ARC...I am going to BEA next week after all)! Leave it in the comments!

Click here to read the first Moby-Dick post.


Marie said...

"You were right! The liver IS the best part!"

Are gummy bears part of the prize?

The Compulsive Reader said...

Marie: Probably not 6lbs of gummy bears, but I'm sure we could work something out.

Unknown said...

This was informative and hilarious!! Kudos to that!!

creepy smile said...

Now that I look at the picture again after reading your
take on it, his smile does really look creepy...

"I'll bet he's gonna taste great fried!"
"Indeed, darling, indeed."

Mary Preston said...

"Well you got the Dick part right!"

Lauren said...

"Little did he know what 'sharing a room' would entail..."

Come on. That is definitely less creepster and more awkward-what-did-I-get-myself-into. And with Queequig's raised eyebrows, well...