Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

Here we find the start of the proper narrative, though that doesn’t mean we’re going to leave aside the asides and classical allusions. This is still definitely being narrated by an older Ishmael, and he lets you know it on a constant basis.

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First off, I’m just gonna give a quick summary of the things that happened in this chapter, and then take a closer look at some interesting bits.

SUMMARY: Ishmael decides to “quit the good city of old Manhatto” and go to Nantucket to find a whaling voyage to join. He arrives in New Bedford on a saturday night, and discovers that the next ferry isn’t until monday morning. Wandering the icy, December streets, with little money in his pocket, he seeks a suitable cheap inn to rest at. Along the way, he stumbles (literally) across a church full of black people, in the middle of a service. Near the harbor, he finds the Spouter-Inn, a dilapidated old house whose sign has a suitable “poverty-stricken creak to it”. Ishmael decides to head inside.

Now, one thing that’s interesting about this particular chapter is the title of it. Carpet bags have a certain cultural implication in America, particularly in the south, where the northerners who came to oversee the Reconstruction after the civil war were called “carpetbaggers”. It has an implication of an outside meddler, who thinks they’re better than you. I, of course, first heard the term from the mouth of Foghorn Leghorn, late of the Looney Tunes, on saturday mornings, as you do.

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But, none of that actually applies to the use of the term “carpet-bag” in this chapter, because this book was written in 1850, some 15 years before the civil war. A carpet bag is just the thing that Ishmael packs his things in. It’s literally a bag made out of carpet, rather common luggage in the 19th century. It’s good to keep in mind this context as we move forward. There are one or two segments involving black characters and phonetic accents that are, as the kids like to say these days, quite problematic. But that sort of thing was in the air, literarily speaking, at the time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published the same year as Moby Dick.

Anyway, I’m getting off track. There will be plenty of time to mull over such… shall we say, regrettable passages, when the time comes.

This chapter has a lot of great imagery around darkness and cold. The frozen, dark streets of New Bedford, lit by only a few small lights here and there, “like a candle in a tomb”. This leads into one of the main biblical metaphors, of which there are several.

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Upon finding the Spouter-Inn, and deciding it looks cheap enough, Ishmael first mentions that it is situated on a sharp corner, where it is hit directly by the wind. He calls the wind “Euroclydon”, and then goes on to talk about how it is an awful, tempestuous wind that is a terror to those left out in the cold, but a comfort to those who can remain indoors. Using another, different biblical analogy, he compares the situations of Lazarus and Dives, one suffering in the wind with no relief, and the other enjoying luxury in his cozy house.

Ah, I said a second, but the wind Euroclydon is itself a biblical analogy. It’s the very wind that sunk Paul’s boat on his way to Malta in the book of Acts (27:14). This wind is called by name in that book, being the traditional term for cyclonic winds from the northeast in the mediterranean. This has absolutely nothing to do with the parable of Lazarus (not that Lazarus, the less famous one) and the rich man (traditionally called Dives). Talking about Euroclydon is just a biblical reference for the sake of it, and Ishmael (or Melville) does revel in that.

Throughout this book, Melville makes use of biblical references as a matter of course, both well-known and obscure. Indeed, his very writing style is influenced greatly by the King James Bible. It adds a degree of bombastic flair to what is otherwise a very plain story about a sea voyage.

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There is more going on with the bit about Lazarus and Dives, though. Another reference to the predestined nature of life, and how you can’t change your fate.

But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon.

Also using this metaphor to talk about the improvement of humans, through the notion of stopping all the holes to keep out the wind. But, concluding that it’s simply too late now. This is also where we start to get the theme of luxury and comfort being most enjoyable when they are juxtaposed with harshness:

What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.

Now, there is one last paragraph here that I am quite puzzled over. I can’t quite make out what Ishmael (or, rather, Melville) is on about.

Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

It’s a very evocative image, and a fun little bit of prose. But… what? Is this like some manner of joke about how the bible isn’t a true account of things that actually happened? With a joke about temperance societies thrown in, for good measure? There is no more context, the chapter ends after the next paragraph, where Ishmael decides to head inside, and it is never brought up again.

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So, like I said, context is important, and I’m clearly lacking some here. Perhaps it is some sort of contemporary joke, lord knows Melville loves to make all sorts of classical and, to him, modern references and asides. But, the information to properly interpret this has been lost to the ravages of time! It remains only as a perplexing bit of prose, evocative as it is enigmatic.


Thanks for reading, as always you can read along with any number of fantastical futuristic electronical reading devices using the computer files available at yonder website, named for the famous German inventor of the very printing press that was formerly used to print the very first printed books and spread knowledge to the common people of the world, or at least the northern climes that are now, as then, designated Europe.

Come back next time for a real monster of a chapter, where a lot of things happen!

1 thought on “Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag”

  1. Thanks for another great post, Robin! Per the puzzling passage, here’s my best stab at a paraphrase:

    In the heavenly scheme of things, the sight of a a pure-hearted beggar in a rich man’s courtyard is more astonishing than that of an iceberg floating in the tropics. This is because, in death, the poor man will harvest the fruits of heaven, while the rich man–too cold and miserly to help even orphans–will harvest the hot coals of hell.

    Keep ’em coming!

    Like

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