Alright, now we are back in it.
Today’s chapter is a lengthy one, featuring the tale of another whaling ship that the Pequod comes across on that vast, wild plain of the Pacific Ocean. They hear the story of this ship, another wild tale that happens to be incredibly relevant to their own quest. Let’s listen in, shall we?
SUMMARY: The Jeroboam puts out a boat containing the captain to visit the Pequod. But, when the boat comes near, the captain of the Jeroboam, Mayhew, refuses to come aboard, saying that there is an epidemic aboard his ship, and though he and all the men on his boat are unaffected thus far, it wouldn’t be safe. So, Mayhew stays in his boat and talks with Ahab and Starbuck from a safe distance, while the rowers endeavor to keep them all close together on the now roiling sea.
When the boat comes near, Stubb recognizes one of the rowers. It is none other than a notable crazy prophet that was told of by the crew of the Town-Ho during that momentous gam. He grew up in a Shaker community, gaining a reputation as a prophet who traveled back and forth to heaven, before deciding to strike out on his own and join a whaling voyage. He kept his status under wraps until the ship left port, but then declared himself the Archangel Gabriel, and soon had the whole crew under his thumb. The captain wanted to get rid of him, but couldn’t without losing every last crewman alongside him.
Ahab asks about the White Whale, Moby Dick, and this provokes a strong reaction from Gabriel. Captain Mayhew tells the story, it seems that the Jeroboam heard tell of Moby Dick not long after leaving port, and Gabriel decided that this monstrous creature was an incarnation of God, and must not be hunted. Still, when the ship did inevitably encounter Moby Dick, the first mate, Macey, was determined to take his chance. He managed to convince five men to row for him, and set out on the hunt. After a long struggle to get a line fast, Moby Dick swung his mighty tail and smote Macy and Macy only out of the boat and fifty yards away, across the ocean. Not a single board of the boat or hair on the rowers’ heads was harmed. Macy was found stone dead, floating in the water.
Gabriel took this as proof of the divine nature of the beast, and his status among the crew was raised higher than ever. When the disease fell upon them, he took responsibility for it as well, calling it his “plague”. He exhorts Ahab not to seek the White Whale from the boat, calling him a heretic.
Ahab recalls that the Pequod is carrying a letter bound for the Jeroboam, and has Starbuck look for it in the mail bag. Alas! it turns out this letter is for the deceased first mate. Ahab tries to deliver it anyway, but Gabriel seizes the letter and stabs it with a knife, and then tosses it back aboard the Pequod. He tells Ahab to keep the letter, since he’ll be going the same way soon anyway. The boat then drifts away, and Mayhew and his men return to the Jeroboam.
Whew! I said this was a long one, and I meant it.
Lots of interesting things here. First, there’s the fact that the Jeroboam is suffering from an epidemic, in addition to suffering under the heel of a demagogue. Seems rather relevant to today’s various crises, does it not? I think the actual thing here is that the sickness of the mind represented by the craziness of Gabriel (the book’s words, not mine) has been transposed to a bodily illness as well. Or, perhaps they were struck down by a plague for daring to harm the incarnation of divine power that is Moby Dick.
It’s ambiguous, but it is interesting just how denigrating Ishmael is towards Gabriel, calling him “crazy” and “cracked” and “insane” in several different places. The mythologizing that Gabriel is doing about himself, the whaling voyage, and specifically Moby Dick, is awfully similar to what Ishmael himself is doing. One may even thing that’s one of those things where you hate someone for doing something too similar to what you yourself are doing, but more successfully. Or, perhaps it’s just narcissism of small differences. Gabriel is aggrandizing himself, whereas Ishmael is humbly aggrandizing his captain. A world of difference, there.
Or perhaps it’s the religious aspect, Gabriel is from a Shaker community, and they were largely seen as wild radicals at the time. The Shakers were similar to the Quakers (indeed, their name comes from being “shaking quakers”), but took things even further. They believed in equality between the sexes, radical egalitarianism, in addition to pacifism. They lived a communal lifestyle, with everyone sharing in the fruits of the labor of everyone else. The Shakers were renowned for their furniture and architecture, they built many, many buildings all over New England.
They also believed in absolute celibacy, which is why there are no Shakers around today. This was actually a big thing in early Christianity, a lot of the books attributed to Paul tell people that if they must have sex, it should only be with a spouse, but really it’s better to abstain entirely. So, it makes sense that it came back in the wave of protestant and non-conformist new sects, who would be looking for inspiration in the actual writing of the bible and associated deutero-canonical works.
Say what he will about Gabriel and his antics, he was proven correct about Moby Dick in the end. Though Ishmael takes pains to assure is that this sort of thing is not all that unusual:
It is well to parenthesize here, that of the fatal accidents in the Sperm-Whale Fishery, this kind is perhaps almost as frequent as any. Sometimes, nothing is injured but the man who is thus annihilated; oftener the boat’s bow is knocked off, or the thigh-board, in which the headsman stands, is torn from its place and accompanies the body. But strangest of all is the circumstance, that in more instances than one, when the body has been recovered, not a single mark of violence is discernible; the man being stark dead.
It seems that Ishmael finds Gabriel to be nothing more than a common huckster, employing cold-reading tricks like any old fortune-teller at the county fair:
This terrible event clothed the archangel with added influence; because his credulous disciples believed that he had specifically fore-announced it, instead of only making a general prophecy, which any one might have done, and so have chanced to hit one of many marks in the wide margin allowed.
Which, really, tells us a lot about Ishmael himself. Remember that these are his interpretations of events from a distance of many years, and with the hindsight of the whole voyage laid out in front of him. He sees a bit of Ahab mixed with himself in Gabriel, taking control of the crew and motivating them through sheer charisma and force of will. Using his intelligence to take control and overrule the advice of experienced and wise council. Except in Ahab’s case, he’s the captain, so that is taken as more virtuous, whereas Gabriel is a greenhorn crewman, so is overstepping his authority when he does so.
So, in a way, this is Ishmael subtly bragging about how humble he is. His mythologizing is kept under his hat, his analysis of the doom that faces them all is not used to terrify anyone on the crew. It is merely a private reflection for the sole survivor of the Pequod.
It’s funny, one of the famous interpretations of Moby Dick, the whale himself, is that he represents God. I could kinda see that from a few angles as we were going, but I didn’t realize that comparison was literally made in the text by a person described as “crazy” by the narrator. I suppose I understand why this book is a favorite of some high school english teachers, wearing its themes on its sleeve as it does. It gives hints and implications, and then Ishmael or some other character comes out and says “HEY WHAT IF THE WHALE IS GOD, WOULDN’T THAT BE CRAZY.”
Still, I am firm in my belief that this is a terrible book to force on high schoolers. Lord knows I would have despised it if I were forced to read it at that age, under those circumstances. Being forced to read a book has a certain impact on your perception of it, and I feel that a lot of teachers aren’t cognizant of that fact.
Moby Dick is a wonderful book, if you come to it naturally. If you decide to read it for fun, for the pure purpose of self-edification or entertainment, it is a wonderful read. But if you are expected to read at a certain pace? Expected to write about it as well, on certain prescribed subjects? Expected to be productive about it? Well, that just sounds miserable to me, even now.
Much like the Town-Ho’s Story, this chapter also represents a microcosm of the voyage of the Pequod, just in a slightly different form. The questor for the whale is the first mate, and the prophet of doom is a random crewman. The captain is just trying to do his job and wants nothing to do with all this nonsense. Thus, in the end, everyone is spared except for the first mate. It shows that the primary sin of Ahab is not so much being a crazy old man, but his specific obsessions with killing that specific whale. That is what dooms the ship.
If only the ship were seized with some more ordinary, wholesome craziness, like believing that some random guy is the Archangel Gabriel, they may not have met with such a disaster.
The Town-Ho’s Story showed how legal and ethical transgressions were not the doom of the Pequod, and this one shows that it was not spiritual ones either. No, it’s nothing so vague of abstract, in the end, it is merely the fact that Ahab is chasing after something that is willing and able to kill him and everyone else on board without a second thought. All this mythologizing and philosophizing isn’t worth a hill of beans at the end of the day.
Moby Dick does not know that he is blasphemed in Ahab’s heart, and cares not. Only the final combat is the thing that matters. The physical reality of it, the strength of the whale against all the gathered intelligence and force of will of one tiny human. All the demons and angels that he could summon through his terrible will, all the collected effort of the crew, everything he could muster.
In the end, all that mythologizing does is blind you to the truth. That’s why it can only really be done in retrospect, as Ishmael is doing here. Showing how, despite all of Ahab’s confidence, the signs were there all along. Trying to warn others away from similar doomed quests. All in vain!
“Think, think of the blasphemer—dead, and down there!—beware of the blasphemer’s end!”
Whew, that was a good one. Writing that summary was tricky, there’s really a lot going on in this chapter, it’s hard to compress it down. The whole backstory for Gabriel takes place in one gigantic paragraph.
I don’t know how people write such long paragraphs, when one of mine gets to be like more than 5 or 6 lines long I start getting nervous and looking for an off-ramp. Maybe it’s that I hate reading such long paragraphs, and so seek not to inflict them on others, or maybe it’s just a lack of focus. Who could ever know.
Until next time, shipmates!