Merry Christmas! Boy, the timing on this one sure didn’t work out. Yes, as it turns out, the Pequod launches on Christmas day of… some… unknown year? I could just go grab the same date as the launching of the Essex, the real, actual whaling ship that was sunk by a sperm whale, and say “ah yes, clearly this is Ishmael recounting his voyage on that famous boat through the Medium of Fiction” or some such thing.
But, as it happens, the sinking of the Essex is mentioned in this book, by Ishmael, as proof that it is in fact possible for a whaling ship to be sunk by a whale. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself, that’s not for a while, I don’t think. Let’s get into today’s chapter.
SUMMARY: The Pequod is dragged out from the wharf, and makes its way out of the harbor. The joint owners and temporary captains, Peleg and Bildad, remain on board, to give orders and pilot the ship. Ahab remains below, unseen, though it is not unusual for captains to remain in their cabin until ships are well under weigh. Ishmael and Queequeg work the capstan to bring up the anchor, under supervision of Peleg. Fearing the wild mannerisms of Peleg, Ishmael pauses briefly, and receives his first motivational kick. Eventually, the ship is far enough out to sea that the pilot is no longer necessary, as the captains depart on a sailboat, back to Nantucket.
Lots of interesting nautical details in this chapter. Little things you may not know, I certainly didn’t, about the way that old sailing ships worked. Like, for example, what a pilot is: someone whose job is to navigate a ship out of port safely. But not only that, pilots must be certified and registered with the port, and you must pay for their services. It makes sense when you think about it, most ships are going to be docking in all sorts of different places, and coming into port is the most dangerous part, so you’d want to have someone specialized to handle it.
This sort of extremely specialized knowledge isn’t as common nowadays, it seems to me. That could be a person’s whole livelihood, just knowing all the particular rocks and shoals and currents of the water off shore from where they live. It’s just different, I guess, knowing all the tricks for handling certain equipment or guiding people through complex bureaucracy, these are the rocks and shoals of our time.
Aunt Charity comes back aboard with a few more items, after the ship has left the dock, being ferried over on one of the whale boats. We get one more little detail about her: Stubb, the second mate, is her brother-in-law. Indeed, in this chapter we finally get the names of all the mates, in the midst of the business of moving the ship to the open ocean.
The first mate we’ve already seen mentioned, Starbuck. And yes, the coffee chain is named for him. The second mate is Stubb, and the third is Flask. We’ll get quite a bit more detail on these three in a few chapters, they will end up being far more important to the goings-on aboard the ship than Ishmael or Queequeg.
Really, this is still the extended prologue of Moby Dick. Perhaps that is part of what gives it such a reputation for being a hard read, it takes forever to really “get going”. Or, at least it would seem if you’re just interested in action and Ahab, I hope I’ve demonstrated that there’s some good stuff to be found even in the less explicitly narrative parts of this book!
We get a bit more fun business with our diametrically opposed captains. Peleg running around swearing at the crew, yelling at them to kill themselves to get the anchor up faster, while Bildad calmly sings a dismal hymn. Indeed, Bildad has given the crew explicit instructions that there are to be NO bawdy songs while they work, as he is ever concerned with their immortal souls, and his sister has laid a “choice copy of Watts” on each and every one of their beds.
“Watts” being, as you of course already know, Isaac Watts, the Godfather of English Hymnody.
“Hymnody” being, as any random bumpkin on the street could tell you, the term for writing hymns.
Meanwhile, the crew are singing “The Girls of Booble Alley” as they weigh the anchor, and Peleg is running around swearing at them, trying to… encourage them.
“Is that the way they heave in the marchant service?” he roared. “Spring, thou sheep-head; spring, and break thy backbone! Why don’t ye spring, I say, all of ye—spring! Quohog! spring, thou chap with the red whiskers; spring there, Scotch-cap; spring, thou green pants. Spring, I say, all of ye, and spring your eyes out!”
Throughout the book, we’ll get a number of examples of this sort of long speech trying to get maximum effort out of the crew. We’ll see them from all the mates, and get an insight into their personality and command styles. This is a good baseline, an angry old man telling you to spring your eyes out.
This sort of direct motivation is an important part of work on a ship, especially a whaling boat. While the ship itself is wind-powered, the smaller boats that are sent out to chase whales are all elbow grease. If you want to get close enough to tag a whale with a harpoon, you have got to encourage some fast rowing.
The first kick that Ishmael receives, for being a bit slow at the capstan, may seem like a minor point, but corporal punishment at sea is something of a personal buggaboo for Herman Melville. He wrote two later short stories concerning the injustice of it (White-Jacket and Billy Budd), and there is an incident recounted later in this book on the same subject. The particular kind of minor abuse that Peleg gives out freely is not the main target, of course, but rather floggings, which were abolished in part due to his works.
Suffice it to say that while this sort of thing was very common in all sorts of work at sea, Meville was, shall we say, not a fan. It’s easy to read some history and think that everyone in the past was some sort of callous monster who beat and killed each other for fun, but again we must remember that these were just people like we are. There’s a reason this book is written from the perspective of Ishmael, a common sailor, rather than starting off with Ahab, the actual protagonist of the story (or that might be Starbuck) (that’s a question for another time).
Anyway, the Pequod is finally out to sea, in the northern Atlantic ocean, at the end of December. It’s cold:
It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.
And now, it is time for the co-owners and co-captains to depart. They are both struck with emotion at this final parting, as if they have some premonition of the awful fate that the Pequod is rushing to meet. Even crusty old Peleg has a tear in his eye as he leaves, and Bildad is practically distraught, running to and fro, giving long speeches of final advice to all the crew.
It is a very long voyage, after all, so it only makes sense. This gives you a feeling for the humanity of these old sailors, as they send off their old friends among the officers, the crew that is their responsibility, and their investment in the ship and the voyage. It’s all a big gamble, ships sink and men die every day on the wide oceans.
We did it! The ship is finally at sea, and the voyage has properly begun. Though it’s full purpose has not yet been revealed, so it still feels a bit like we are in the prologue. There are still many character introductions to come, and an awful lot to learn about the business of whaling, and whales themselves.
I’m definitely going to have to get creative to find things to talk about for some of these chapters, coming up. We’re going to get way far away from anything that could remotely be considered a story being told. But that can be fun to interpret in its own right, I can get more into the character of the fictional author of the book, Old Ishmael.
Until next time, shipmates!