Chapter 14: Nantucket

Ah! That new blog smell, never does get old, does it. Yesterday, I spent my afternoon moving everything over here from tumblr, at least those things that were worth moving. The thousands upon thousands of reblogs will have to stay put upon that sinking ship of a website.


So, let us get right back to it, with a very fun non-narrative chapter of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale!

SUMMARY: Ishmael and Queequeg arrive on Nantucket without further incident.

This chapter is essentially just Melville showing off his prose-writing skills and having some fun rhapsodizing about what is, apparently, one of his favorite places in the world. We got a bit of foreshadowing of this early on, back in like chapter 1 I think, when Ishmael insisted on launching his whaling career from Nantucket instead of just leaving from New Bedford, which has the advantage of not being an island off the coast.

When you love a thing or a place, it can be fun to exaggerate things about it. For example, here in Seattle it’s fun to talk about how we’re growing gills from all the rain and go months and months without seeing the sun in the fall and winter (that one is half true). Ishmael focuses on two particular aspects of Nantucket: its remoteness, and its connection to the sea.

Nantucket is a sandy little island off the shore of Massachusetts. Not a thing grows there that doesn’t come up from the waves, we are assured. There is no grass, no wood, everything must be imported, even to stop a leak in a barrel. One of my favorite images is “that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome”. Referring to the old Christian practice of worshiping relics, bits of the cross that Jesus died on or the various body parts of saints. Since idolatry is explicitly banned, but it’s fun to do, and people like it.

In describing its remoteness, Ishmael compares it to Eddystone lighthouse, which is situated some ten miles off the coast of Cornwall, in England. The area was notorious for extremely dangerous reefs, ships would actually stay close to the French coast to avoid it, and often shipwreck there instead. There have actually been four lighthouses built there. The first one was utterly destroyed by a storm, the second one burned down (always a concern with lighthouses in those days), and the third one developed structural instability at its base due to erosion. The fourth one, built in the late 19th century, still stands today, now automated and solar-powered, with a helipad on its roof, so the maintenance workers can get in and out with little danger.


I mentioned a few weeks ago, in The Sermon, that some writing is best when it is spoken out loud, or at least imagined to be spoken out loud, or whispered under one’s breath when it is read (if you want to be polite). This chapter is a prime example of that sort of writing. That whole last paragraph simply begs to be declaimed from a gigantic easy chair in front of a roaring fire in an old, dark house, in the middle of a raging storm.

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.

Ishmael rails on about the glory of these whaling folk who populate this tiny island. This is another part of his larger project of increasing the profile of whaling and whales in general, evangelizing about their grandeur and importance, hoping to increase the esteem of the whaler in the culture at large.

This part I don’t even have to guess it, Ishmael lays it out explicitly later on, when he comes about around to make point-by-point arguments about why whalers are cool and good, actually. What he’s is attempting to do is to get his audience to look at things from a different perspective. To really think about the oil that burns in their lamp, and what kind of work must be done to acquire it.

But, that’s really a topic for a later time, when we get more into that sort of discourse.


For now, we’ve got this image of the Nantucketer as the conqueror of the better part of the entire world. Whaling ships go absolutely everywhere, as they must to chase their prey. Whales are not bound to a single ocean, so the whaler must be willing to go on extremely long voyages in order to have any hope of success. Indeed, whaling expeditions often lasted five years or more, and the whole time is spent at sea, only setting in to port in case of an extreme emergency.

Something that I really like about this book is that it really makes me think about whales and the ocean in a different way. The modern world is so small, it seems at times. We are all connected over the internet, by planes and cars and trains. Vast distances are abstracted away by technology. Even when you read books about the past, they often gloss over such details to focus on plot or character or whatnot. But Moby Dick, as a book, is very concerned with the practical realities of whaling, not just building up a more Romantic image of it.

The vastness of the oceans, and of the whale itself, are hard to even conceptualize. By use of poetic imagery, Ishmael gives us a taste of it here, and elsewhere in this book. He deploys his bombast with precision, where it is most needed.

Well, that was a bit of short chapter. Not much to go off of, at this point. I had to hold myself back, there are better times to really expand on some themes that are introduced here. Once we get on the ship, and all notion of any narrative is lost for dozens of chapters, then we can get into some real philosophizing.

Next up is another run of very narrative-focused chapters, as our two close chums get settled in on Nantucket and see about getting aboard a ship to go a-whaling.

Until next time, shipmates!

Image credits:

The town of Sherburne in the island of Nantucket (1775), by B Tanner

Winstanley’s Lighthouse at the Eddystone (1761), by Henry Roberts

Bleak December (1884), by Gustave Doré

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