Monday, August 12, 2019

Moby-Dick Ch. 1-7: Early Clues of Sin/Redemption & Prejudices Theme

I might not be posting regularly for #MobyDickReadalong, but I'll try to squeeze some chapters every now and then into my tight schedule. Here’s my thoughts for the first seven chapters.

Chapter 1: Loomings

I was surprised at the abundant curious and interesting bits in this chapter alone - and it's only the beginning!

First, of course, one of the most famous opening lines in literature: "Call me Ishmael!" I have dutifully (following Brona's suggestion) listened to Whale Whale Whale podcast, which suggests that Ishmael is not just a person's name, but has a deeper meaning. Ishmael is taken from Abraham's son, who was a wanderer, an outcast. The narrator's condition: broke and depressed.
I've decided not to continue with Whale Whale Whale podcast, as it is full with bantering, like listening to a talkshow, and I have not the patience nor the time to listen to it! 

Water is liberating
Water, to most people, is mysterious – “the ungraspable phantom of life” – enchanting, and liberating ("...landsmen [who] on week days pent up in lath and plaster - tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks"). For Ishmael in particular, being a sailor is also liberating, despite of the obligation to serve and obey his bosses.

Sin and the burden of duty
I was struck by this passage: "The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves (Adam and Eve) entailed upon us." I began to think about sin - or the burden caused by original sin.

Interesting, eh? Sin and water in one chapter; is it me, or does it remind you to baptism? Hmm... maybe I've gone too far, but, who knows?... But wait, there's more in the next chapter...

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

Ishmael stumbled upon "an ash-box in the porch" when entering a building he thought was an inn. And his reaction was: "Are these ashes from the destroyed city, Gomorrah?" Again, the allusion of sin. When he entered the building, and found that it’s a negro church, his reaction was: "It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet (=hell)... and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit." What do you make of it? It's still a mystery to me, but I still can't shake off the allusion of 'sin' in this passage also.

Then there is the theme of rich and poor – poor Lazarus and the rich man. That the rich is often belittling the poor's sorrow (Euroclydon/tempestuous wind for the poor is a gentle breeze for the rich) because the rich "look out from glass window where the frost is all on the outside".

Chapter 3: The Spouter Inn

Here a new theme is presented: prejudice. The first case is when Ishmael pondering over a curious painting. At first he accused the painter of "in the time of the New England hags, [the painter] had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched." But finally he realized that it was a whale painting. Case number two is the hilarious scene when Ishmael and Queequeg first met. Each looked upon the other with suspicion. When meeting someone unfamiliar for the first time, we tend to imagine the worst.

Favorite quotes:
Ignorance is the parent of fear.
Better sleep with a sober criminal than a drunken Christian.

Chapter 4: Counterpane

Picking up prejudice theme from chapter 3, Melville highlighted how outside appearance is nothing compared to what it content inside. [Another] hilarious scene of Ishmael waking up with Queequeg's "blithed" arm hugged him in an affectionate manner. And despite of being savage and uncivilized, Ishmael was surprised to find Queequeg very polite and had "neat delicacies".

Another mystery to me presented itself in this chapter. His awkward situation with Queequeg reminded Ishmael of his childhood experience with his stepmother and the "supernatural hand placed in him" in his sleep. Whose hand it was, do you think? Was it really supernatural? Or perhaps it's his step mother's whom he thought wicked, but actually cared about him? Again... is it prejudice?

Chapter 5: Breakfast

There’s the memorable scene where Queequeg stab his steak with harpoon at breakfast!

Interesting quote:
And the man that has anything bountiful laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

Chapter 6: The Street

Ishmael mocked New Bedford's "bumpkin dandies" who go whaling. They do it out of greed, to enrich themselves – which was reflected from their beautiful houses.

Chapter 7: The Chapel

A gloomy reflection entered Ishmael's mind while he was sitting in the chapel, looking at marble tablets dedicated for the dead sailors. He pondered about the true meaning of life and death, and why man is so afraid of death. Life is but a momentary existence, while death is the truest. With that in mind, Ishmael is spiritually prepared for the dangerous whaling journey.

Favorite quote:
"What they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. 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."

That is all for the moment. I have actually read chapter eight (and today began ch. 9), but I think it requires a dedicated post (maybe coupled with chapter nine), as there are a lot of thoughts I might want to jot down.


  1. I love how you're focused on the themes revealing themselves already. My knowledge of religious thought is academic only, so even though I noted the biblical references, knew the stories etc, I didn't then jump to the religious meaning inferred by them - original sin and baptism, but given Melville's religious upbringing and beliefs, it's most likely a reasonable inference to make. Sin and redemption certainly then get a good showing in chapters 8 & 9. I look forward to reading your thoughts about this later :-)

  2. This is really great, Fanda. Well done! Ishmael is a pillar in this novel; I am glad we get to see the story through his eyes. He is well grounded, and it gives the reader confidence that he is going to do alright on this journey. I like his philosophy that death is the truest part of a life, and he faces it head on.

    1. Ishmael is a wonderful narrator. Reliable, open-minded and curious.

  3. I'm planning a post for next week on themes. It will be tentative and basic, but it seems to help me to think about the book by writing about it.

  4. I like all the religious symbolism and wonder what it means, too. Would that be the general frame of reference at that time period for most folks?

    Nice job with all your notes. I also liked this from Ch. 7, "Methinks my body is but the less of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me."

    1. While Fanda has focused on themes, Deb the words (& you the whale!); I have become slightly obsessed with Herman himself.

      It was considered normal, if not necessary, for anyone of good social standing to attend church at that time. Although Melville with his strict Calvinistic upbringing would have had a particular fire & brimstone version of the bible. But like many others during this time, he came to question the practice of religion and the many hypocrisies done in its name. It was also a time when many began to move away from accepting the words of the bible as historical fact, but saw them instead as allegories & stories, or guides on how one should live their life. It’s a time in history I find fascinating (with the explosion in scientific knowledge, exploration & creativity) which I guess explains why Melville’s life has captured my imagination so much.
      I love that we’re all getting something different from our reading of MD 🐳

  5. Great post! The opening chapters really are hilarious in a bunch of places. Not what one thinks of Melville--and we may see less of it going forward, I fear...--but a pleasantly surprising start, isn't it?

    But I also don't think you've gone too far in connecting sin and water to baptism either!

    1. I for one was not expecting to laugh so much in Moby-Dick. I suspect that might change once we actually leave Nantucket!


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