More Moby Dick

Of course, if you read a long c19th novel in January, you’re sure to find a stream-of-consciousness passage in it. It happened with Dostoevsky’s The Devils; it happened with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; and it’s happened again with Moby Dick.

I’m referring here to chapters 37 to 40. What has preceded so far is a fairly normal c19th 1st-person narrative. In chapter 36, Ahab has announced to the crew that the purpose of the expedition is not, as they had previously supposed, to hunt whales in general for pecuniary gain, but rather to hunt one specific whale for the purpose of revenge, and some kind of rite of passage is then performed to bind them to this endeavour. Starbuck, one of Ahab’s chief officers, is opposed to his captain’s intent, but feels obliged to conceal his opposition and join in.

Then follows chapter 37, which I must admit on first reading completely threw me as to what point of view we had here: after all, this is a 1st-person narrative told from the point of view of Ishmael: we couldn’t, could we, have any point of view other than his own:

The cabin; by the storm windows; Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out.

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my back; let them; but first I pass.

Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun – slow dived from noon, – goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I know – not gold. ‘Tis split, too – that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!

In this strange passage, Ahab then ponders on bending his crew to his will, and Starbuck in particular. The next chapter sees Starbuck taking over the narrative in a similar style, so that we get his point of view; and then the following chapter is from the point of view of another of the mates’, Stubb.

I suppose maybe what we are looking at here is closer to a series of Shakespearean soliloquies; there is a specifically theatrical annotation throughout; but such soliloquies are, of course, just variants of stream-of-consciousness. Then chapter 40, laid out entirely like a play, is essentially a cacophony of point of views, representing the collective point of view of the crew itself, some of which is clearly spoken, some perhaps in soliloquy (or at least muttered under the breath; not expected to be heard), all ending with the following speech of the character Pip to himself,

Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It’s worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year! Who’d go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don’t. Fine prospects to ’em; they’re on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet – they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale – shirr! shirr! – but spoken of once! and only this evening – it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine – that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

Though I haven’t got there yet, I’m kind of intrigued whether this section isn’t in fact quite similar to the nighttown episode in Ulysses – a much shortened version, of course, but with much the same polyphonic effect. They are certainly laid out much the same.


2 thoughts on “More Moby Dick

  1. I think of Moby-Dick as a piece of writing, I mean a fictional piece of writing, a memoir by “Ishmael,” who is nuts, so any wandering around in point of view is his as well as Melville’s. Thus, for example, “The Town-Ho’s Story.”

    It also lets Melville do whatever he wants, of course.

    The comparison to “Nighttown” – yeah, that’s interesting.

  2. To be fair, though, at least the narrator explains how “The Town-Ho’s Story” came to his ears; and it fits into the idea of a 1st person narrative. Nothing is explained about the above passages: we have to assume either Ishmael has insight into other people’s minds (as, of course, they did in c19th), or that he’s just making it up (perhaps to give us a better sense of the natures of these characters).

    It reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky’s lack of explanation for the remarkable insight of his first person narrators, who often to know a lot about what they shouldn’t.

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