Let’s keep this train rollin’.
Today’s chapter is back in more grounded territory, after the high-minded philosophy of the last few. Just some good ol’ fashioned whale butchering shenanigans with Ishmael and Queequeg. Remember them? The ostensible deuteragonists of this book? They’re back!
SUMMARY: Ishmael doubles back, again, to describe another whaling practice. In order to hook the whale’s carcass with the enormous blubber hook, which then winds off its blubbery blanket of skin, it must be inserted into the tail. This is accomplished by having a harpooneer, in this case Queequeg, descend to the carcass and stand on top of it, guiding the hook and carving out a hole in which it can be inserted. They then stay there, on the gigantic corpse, while it is spun around and skinned.
The harpooneer wears a rope attached to a belt around his waist, which is attached on the other end to another belt worn by a crewman. In this case, it was Ishmael, and he had a hell of a time trying to keep Queequeg safe, pulling him up when he fell off the side of the slippery whale, and keeping an eye on him in general. The other harpooneers helped as well, using long whaling spades to kill the countless sharks that still swarmed around the whale.
After Queequeg is finally finished, and climbs back aboard the Pequod, Stubb calls for the steward, Doughboy, to bring him something to revive him. Doughboy brings some hot water and ginger, and Stubb is enraged. It turns out Aunt Charity, back in Nantucket, gave him strict instructions to not give the harpooneers any alcohol, but instead to ply them with this ginger mixture. Stubb angrily orders Doughboy back down to the kitchen to prepare a proper drink. Starbuck advises him… to go with the poor steward and pick out something good.
Stubb returns with a bottle of The Good Stuff for Queequeg, and the jar of ginger, which he tosses overboard.
Feels like ages since we’ve had actual dialog in this book, but that may be because I keep taking months off from this blog at a time. Also, I wish I could forget that Stubb’s Supper ever happened….
Anyway, this is a fun chapter. Nice to see our old dudes bein’ bros at it again, Ishmael and Queequeg literally tied together. Why it’s almost like they’re married or something!
So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother; nor could I any way get rid of the dangerous liabilities which the hempen bond entailed.
I can’t believe Ishmael forgot that they were already married back in that cozy New Bedford inn where they first met, but I suppose he’s been at sea for a while. Plus, he wants to make as many analogies as he can about their situation. After this, he gets a bit philosophical, realizing just how dire the situation could be. His life is no longer solely in his own hands, if his husband makes some mistake and perishes, then he does as well.
But, of course, Ishmael then realizes that this is, in fact, the case for everyone, all the time, anywhere in human society. We all depend on each other and are affected by each other’s actions to various degrees.
If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard.
And so it is! It is impossible to escape the web of connection with other human beings. Especially in the modern world, where the very quality of the air you breathe can be influenced by the aggregate actions of millions of people on the other side of the globe. Indeed, this is one of the great problems of our age, what with Global Warming being a collective problem for all humanity, which all humanity has the power to influence*.
*: Not on an individual level, necessarily, but only in a collective fashion. The greatest polluters are corporations. As with all things, it’s a problem of centralized power and perverse incentives created by capitalism.
The very survival of humanity as a race is in the hands of others. At this time, in the 1840s, one could maybe make the mistake of thinking oneself an island, apart from all human society, in some sort of free state of nature. Of course this is absurd, and was quickly thrown out the window with the invention of nuclear weapons and war on an industrial scale.
The world shrunk significantly in the 100 years since Moby Dick was written, and it has only shrunk more since then. Oh the distances are the same, and the teeming, vast multitude of unique human experience is more diverse than ever, but the difference is that now it is all closer to you. I don’t have to leave my room to see what people on the other side of the planet think about any issue imaginable. I don’t have to go even down the street to see them and hear their actual voices.
I think something people misunderstand often about the world shrinking is that it does not mean that there is less variety. Indeed, the shrinking of distances between individuals and cultures allows for vast new ones to spring up that would never have a chance to exist in the past.
Anyway, Stubb sure does take offense at the ginger:
“Ginger? ginger? and will you have the goodness to tell me, Mr. Dough-Boy, where lies the virtue of ginger? Ginger! is ginger the sort of fuel you use, Dough-boy, to kindle a fire in this shivering cannibal? Ginger!—what the devil is ginger? Sea-coal? firewood?—lucifer matches?—tinder?—gunpowder?—what the devil is ginger, I say, that you offer this cup to our poor Queequeg here.”
“There is some sneaking Temperance Society movement about this business,”
That last line, I think, gives a clue to what this whole sequence is about. There’s this whole cultural Thing about alcohol and temperance that is now largely a thing of the past. The whole movement and the happenstance of Prohibition seem ridiculous from a modern perspective, but the societal dynamics around alcohol were very different in the 19th century.
So, of course the old Quaker woman wouldn’t want any alcohol being served to the “wild savages” of the ship. She wants everyone to be safe and healthy, and that means avoiding alcohol in general, but especially not giving any to them.
Beyond that, I don’t have the context for this whole bit. It’s kinda funny, Stubb always has good dialog, but there are things going on here that I simply do not understand. If it has any deeper thematic connection to the rest of this chapter or the book in general, I don’t know what they would be.
Well, this was kind of a short one, but Ishmael did most of the philosophizing in the chapter itself, and didn’t leave much for me to jump off from. Mostly, this is just a really fun chapter to read, I was tempted to put in even more quotes.
Next chapter should prove more interesting, with some action and dialog and whatnot. Now that the first successful whale hunt has happened, the book is going to become very episodic again. Jumping from incident to incident and topic to topic, in the non-narrative chapters. But there’s still a lot of good stuff in there.
Until next time, shipmates!
I would be remiss if I failed to mention this passage from early in the chapter.
Queequeg figured in the Highland costume—a shirt and socks—in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage; and no one had a better chance to observe him, as will presently be seen.
Ishmael really said that Queequeg looked great working with his dick out.
Don’t let anyone tell you this book isn’t gay as a three dollar bill.