Okay, I’ve been dragging my feet with this one, but I guess I just have to bite the gamey whale steak and get it over with.
This chapter is… difficult to talk about, as a person who likes this book and wants to convince other people to read it. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a book from pre-civil war America, so there are certain subjects that are not going to handled as, uh, delicately as you would hope, particularly anything involving black people. I’ve touched on it a couple times already, but this is where it’s really unavoidable, because we have a whole heaping helping of dialog with a black character, who is of course speaking in a dialect that Melville has painstakingly replicated in the text for our… enjoyment.
SUMMARY: The whale that Stubb killed is slowly dragged back to the ship, since the wind is still too calm to move the ship closer. Then, it is attached by its flukes to the side of the ship with the heaviest chain available. Most of the whale floats below the surface of the water, and makes a feast for the hundreds of sharks that have been attracted by the hundreds of gallons of blood spilled in the battle.
That very night, Stubb orders a steak cut from the whale for his dinner. It is done, and at midnight, by the light of two whale oil lanterns, Stubb eats his steak on the deck of the Pequod. However, he finds that the steak is too well done for his taste, and calls up the cook, an old black man called Fleece, to admonish him. He orders Fleece to preach to the sharks and ask them to be quiet, interjecting and correcting him the whole time. Then he continues complaining about the quality of his steak, continuing to mock the old man about his lack of skill in preparing whale steak despite his advanced age. Fleece repeatedly tries to leave, only to be called back over and over by the jovial Stubb for more barbs.
Look, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it: this dialect? It’s real bad. Here’s a sample.
“When dis old brack man dies,” said the negro slowly, changing his whole air and demeanor, “he hisself won’t go nowhere; but some bressed angel will come and fetch him.”
It would be instructive, I think, to take a moment here to dive deep into why, exactly, depictions like this are so very harmful and repellant to us modern readers. After all, if one were some sort of feckless online cynic, a bomb-thrower with no sense of responsibility who enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate and trying to justify their own carelessness as a sort of iconoclasm, you might argue with this assertion. Such people exist all over nowadays, their voices echoing in your ears on nearly every platform connected to this great internet on which we all stake our livelihoods.
“What”, such a repugnant worm may say, “is the problem here? This is simply the way that black people talked in the 19th century, as professed by countless sources from the time. Is it not more harmful to pretend that things were different than to report the truth?”
The answer is that it is all a part of the centuries-long project of dehumanizing African people for the sake of economic exploitation and terrorism. To paint them as something other than human, not worthy or deserving of the same consideration that one would give to someone who is capable of experiencing the world in the same way. And make no mistake, this is a deliberate project, racism does not spring fully-formed from the pit of the human soul. You start with the default premise of “we treat these people as less than human” and try to work backwards to figure out why that’s actually okay, or even morally righteous.
So, in this very chapter, we see the result of this project: the 90-year-old cook is treated like a child by Stubb. Pestered with questions, relentlessly mocked in a way that he supposedly doesn’t understand, simply treated as a prop for his own private jokes. That’s what makes this chapter so hard to talk about! I would imagine that this is intended to be a sympathetic portrayal, more a highlight of how Stubb’s apparent joviality masks a deep cruelty towards anyone not in on the joke, but then there’s that damn dialect. It marks Fleece out as an object of mockery for the reader as well as for the cruel second mate.
Ah, it feels fruitless to fall back into explaining how racism works again, I’ve done that enough on this blog. This specific form of it should be clear enough by this point, the way that stereotypes can do incredible harm regardless of their truth. It doesn’t actually matter how black people in the 19th century talked, this is still part of a system of degradation and dehumanization that was canonized in literature for centuries.
I’ve been thinking lately about dehumanizing and rehumanizing forces in media. Language is one of the most powerful forces for dehumanization. Hearing someone pronounce something just a little wrong suddenly opens them up for mockery. Hearing a different language makes one feel a great gulf in the basic experience of the world between yourself and another person.
After all, if the basic building blocks of experience, words, can be so different, how can they really be the same as you are? If their thoughts are processed in such a different way, how can you know if their internal world is as rich as yours is? How can you be sure that they’re really as “real” and “human” as you are?
But, there are rehumanizing things as well. A big one I’ve noticed is pets. You see someone playing with a dog or doting over a cat, and they are suddenly as real as if they were your own family member. Simple, basic, domestic things in which you can place yourself in their shoes, those are the things that restore that human connection. Playing familiar music, cooking familiar food, enjoying familiar entertainment of any kind; seeing this will light within you the flame of human compassion.
This scene plays it both ways, really. Stubb is genuinely being an annoying piece of shit, in a very relatable way. And yet, Fleece’s exasperated reactions are steeped in this dialect that distances his from us, marks him out as an other, something lesser, an object of pity rather than sympathy.
Ah, felt good to finally crack that one. I’ve been ruminating over it a lot, it’s really just kind of a weird chapter that always made me a bit uncomfortable. There’s one other, more important black character, Pip, who also speaks in dialect, but his isn’t as extreme, and he’s definitely treated as a full human being by the narrative.
But, that won’t be relevant for a while, yet. It’ll be back to whaling ephemera for a while, before getting back to some serious whale-hunting action.
Until next time, shipmates!