So, now that we’ve gotten past that monumental chapter about every kind of whale that exists, it should be smooth sailing, right?
Well, maybe not. This chapter can be challenging in a different way. It uses a lot of winks and nods and glancing references. It’s very easy to, as I did the first time, just sort of let your eyes scan over the page and not take much in from it.
SUMMARY: Ishmael tells us about the specksnyder, an officer on whaling ships who was formerly in charge of all whaling activity on the ship, in addition to being the chief harpooneer. He then ruminates on the nature of nautical discipline, and the way that Ahab treats his crew and exercises his power.
I’m starting to see a bit of a pattern here, with how some of these non-narrative chapters go. First, we get some Fun Facts about whales or whaling, then Ishmael ties it in with the voyage or Ahab specifically, and finally gets overwhelmed with emotion and hints at some tragic future events in the narrative.
That’s a bit of a reductive way of looking at it, and there’s plenty of variation. The most extreme example is definitely the last chapter, where you get mired in whale facts for 90% of it, and then he pulls out the exclamation points at the very end.
In this case, we learn about the specksnyder, as you’d expect. It means “fat cutter” in Dutch, and was formerly a sort of second captain of the ship. Duties were divided between the regular captain who would plot the voyage and handle the regular ship stuff, and the specksnyder who was totally in charge of actually hunting and processing whales. But that’s all in the past, reduced to a corrupted title for the chief harpooneer, and only in the English fishery, “specksioneer”.
Old Ishmael takes this opportunity to shift into talking about the way that nautical discipline is handled on whaling ships. Since the voyages are so very long, it’s generally pretty loose. It’s not like a military ship, where strict order must be maintained at all time, or even a shorter merchant trip, where a captain may feel a certain superiority to his crew.
You see, on a whaling voyage, everyone is in it together in a very real, material way. Ordinary sailors on a merchant ship are just paid wages, a certain amount of money for their time and labor. The same goes for naval ships. But on a whale ship, everyone is being paid with a portion of the total profits. Everyone has an incentive to do their best, and to encourage everyone else in the same. So there is no need for such strict discipline.
But… there is some, still. Officers have their privileges, and they will still relish in them. For example, ordinary sailors are not allowed on the quarter-deck, nor in the captain’s cabin, without permission. All the officers sleep in the after part of the ship, while lower sailors are in the forecastle.
Then Ishmael gets to talking about Ahab, and it gets a little hard to follow. The meaning I was able to get out of it was that Ahab wasn’t so proud as to go around flaunting his power over his men through the use of old fashioned rules of naval conduct.
Ahab was only interested in getting the men to do his bidding, he didn’t really concern himself much with the specifics of their conduct along the way. And he didn’t rely on the traditional authority ascribed to captains through the power structures inherent in his captaincy. Which is to say: he wanted people to do stuff because it was him, not simply because he was the captain. So he used his force of personality and intelligence to win them over to his side, or keep them in terror of him, rather than just expecting them to obey him due to his high office.
The concern here, for Ishmael, seems to be indicating that Ahab was not an empty suit, merely getting his whims accomplished because of the high office afforded to him through years of service. He was a captain, and he fully deserved the honor of his position in every way. This, then, is what actually makes him so dangerous to the crew. He’s not someone who can be overruled or ignored so easily. He doesn’t desire power for the sake of it, he has no use for it, only for what it can get him.
Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!
So, the way the chapter flows is from an old title that has lost its authority, to the idea that Ahab has authority separate from his official title. The thesis is that all the “usages” and “traditions” of the sea are nothing in the face of true power.
I’m really of two minds about this.
On the one hand, it’s the same old “great man” stuff from before, raising up Ahab to be some incredible, godlike being who can do anything. But I know that is undone later on in this same story, and the greatness falls sadly short in the end. It hews too close to the old Aristotelian idea of some people just being better than others, by birth, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But that is perhaps being unfair to old Ishmael, and Melville. Ahab is never described as having some sort of inherent, in-born greatness. Rather, all of his power comes from experience and dedication to his trade. Perhaps the idea is that anyone could be an Ahab, which is both a good and bad thing.
Much like official titles and accolades, the heights of actual greatness are not something that is bestowed, but rather something that is earned. It is an art, not a trait. It doesn’t matter if you make everyone salute you, what true power is is them doing what you say without having to assert your authority through minor acts of obeisance. And that is a matter of appearance, tone, reputation, and a thousand other minor things.
In a similar way, Ishmael is trapped between his deep respect for Ahab and his knowledge of what happens to the Pequod and everyone on it. He heaps these honors on his old captain’s head as a way of explaining what happened, a way of making sense of things. Ahab must have been powerful, must have been truly great, for him to be responsible for such a tremendous tragedy.
But gosh it sure is a lot of bluster about a man who hasn’t done much yet, huh. The sum total of Ahab’s actual actions in the book so far are: standing on the deck doing nothing, scaring one of his mates, and tossing away his pipe out of despair. Everything is working off portent and omen, even now.
Ah, it really makes me wonder what it would be like to experience reading this book without knowing what happens at the end. It’s such a famous story, but that particular part kind of… isn’t. Like, you would obviously go in knowing that it’s about Ahab chasing the White Whale, Moby Dick, and that that’s wrong somehow. But the specifics haven’t really percolated out into the culture in the same way.
The book has such an intimidating reputation, that I imagine most people really don’t have any idea what happens in it, beyond the barest outline. The sort of person who would sit down and read it, however, would almost certainly already know what happens.
Myself, I knew way ahead of time. It is my particular habit to spoil myself on things, if I can. I find the idea of wanting to find out what happens to be overwhelming, in the process of reading a book. I barely pay attention to characterization or details at all, I am so hungry for the plot. So, I read that part in a short summary wherever I can find it, and then enjoy how the story plays out, rather than what it is.
Perhaps this means I miss out on some of the magic. But I know myself and what I am about.
That was an interesting one. I had to read this chapter a couple times to really figure out what was going on. Not because of references, but because the language was so old fashioned and evasive.
Most of the time, I find this book pretty easy to read, given the folksy and talkative character of Ishmael as a narrator, but occasionally he gets bogged down in trying to sound intellectual. Or so it seems, it’s hard to say what exactly Melville was going for.
Until next time, shipmates!