Sometimes it’s easy to go skimming along through this book and then be suddenly met with an ugly reminder that it was written before the civil war.
Naturally, this is any time a Black character shows up. It happens again this chapter, and while it’s not as bad as the cook, there are still some off-hand comments and just… general weirdness and discomfort around the portrayal of Black characters in this book. Like I think it’s about as good as you can expect from any white writer in 1850, but still, it’s a bit jarring.
Pip, the young black crew member who dispelled the tension back in Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle by playing his tambourine, is suddenly forced to become an oarsman on one of the whaling boats. Normally, less experienced or skilled sailors like him are not taken on the boats, but left back on the ship to mind things, but one of Stubb’s oarsmen was injured during the ambergris-harvesting excursion, so Pip was called up to replace him.
As a timid young man, Pip is very intimidated by the prospect of actually encountering a live whale. On his first time out in the boat, when the harpoon strikes the whale and then the boat is jolted forward as the whale flees, Pip leaps out of the boat and gets tangled in the line. In order to save his life, Tashtego reluctantly cuts the line, and the whale is lost. Pip is berated by the rest of the whaling boat’s crew, and then officially reprimanded by Stubb, who warns him that next time, he’ll be left behind.
The second time, he jumps out of the boat again, but this time is not tangled in the line. So, Stubb’s boat simple leaves him, dragged away by the whale at an incredible speed, assuming that one of the other boats will see him and pick him up. But, it so happens that the other boats are busy chasing their own whales. Pip is left floating on the open ocean, with nobody and nothing on the surface in sight.
This experience of total isolation changes the young man, permanently.
Finally, he’s rescued by the Pequod, which happens to come across him in her pursuit of her boats.
This chapter, for all its action, is kind of a set-up chapter. Putting things in motion that are going to pay off more fully at a later point, kicking off a little sub-plot through the rest of the book.
The Tragedy of Pip
The focus returns to Pip, the little Black boy who is on this Nantucket whaling ship for some unknown reason. Ishmael compares him directly with the lowly steward, Dough-boy, calling them a matched pair. Not in any sort of malicious way, mind, and he even explains that there is a place for less bold and brave members of the crew on a whaler.
Pip is not, as one might expect, some escaped slave with a tragic backstory. No, he’s just from Tolland County, Connecticut, and he loves to play music. Of course, this is styled as a stereotype of all Black people, relating to the songs they sing as they work and their general jolly nature. I hope I don’t have to get into why this is bad and its deep roots in the American entertainment industry that continue to haunt it to this very day.
Here’s just a quick example: you know those gloves that Mickey Mouse and other old timey cartoon characters wear? Yeah, that’s because they’re modeled on blackface performers. It was an absolutely massively popular genre, for many decades, and its influence cannot be escaped.
It comes back around to this notion that Black people were somehow naturally suited to the barbarism that was visited upon them. A pathetic, post-facto justification of an obviously abhorrent practice. That’s really all “race science” and other forms of scientific racism are. Coming up with the most pathetic fig-leaves imaginable to cover up our country’s greatest sin.
To this day, you still find people making these excuses. As ever, the past is not really past. Everyone wants to sleep well at night, and for that, it is necessary to produce a world where such barbarism is not only excusable, but the only right thing to do.
Anyway, I’m getting off track, there’s really nothing objectionable in and of itself about Pip’s characterization, it’s more about the way it’s described in the text that is a bit… uncomfortable. Especially the weird need to justify why a Black character could be admirable, like Melville has to twist himself in knots to even make a metaphor about why this character is “good”.
This chapter also marks the return of something we haven’t seen in a very long time: Moby-Dick as a cosmic horror story!
Stranded on the open ocean, utterly alone, on calm seas, Pip is in no danger of drowning. In the salt water of the mild Pacific ocean, it’s easy to stay afloat for hours and hours. No, the danger comes from the psychological isolation. Being utterly alone, denied of stimulation, and yet faced with the immensity of the ocean beneath you and the sky above you.
Now, it’s not just the fact that Pip goes mad that makes this cosmic horror-tinged, but rather the way that Ishmael describes it. In his isolation, Pip is given a vision of the divine, and simply cannot handle it.
Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.
It’s interesting to me the way that Melville thinks of the divine in an amoral way. It’s not that this was some sinister force that was trying to harm Pip, but simply that he was exposed to more than his mind was capable of bearing. He accidentally came in contact with some infinite, ineffable force far beyond human comprehension.
He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
This comes back around and connects up with the Job-like struggle of Ahab wishing he could strike back against the unknowable forces that govern fate. After all, it is the lack of answer for the injustice he feels has been dealt to him that drives Ahab to defy or destroy these divine entities.
What would happen if these two were to meet? Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out….
Obviously, I have a lot more to say about Pip and his subplot, which really ties in thematically with things in ways I had not realized before this read-through. Even as along-delayed as it’s been, it is nice to really do a close reading on the book like this. Makes me want to take the same approach to other things… but I won’t get ahead of myself.
Ohoho, up next is a very famous chapter, one you’ve probably seen quoted if you have seen anything quoted besides the opening line. Yes, it’s time for some more dudes being bros, some wholesome and definitely heterosexual content.
Until next time, shipmates!
1 thought on “Chapter 93: The Castaway”
THANK YOU SO MUCH for returning to your Moby-Dick blog, just in the nick of time! Two friends and I (all near 70 years old) and are reading this fabulous book for the first time, meeting weekly to discuss about 50 pages each session, on a 14-week schedule. We ran across your blog early on, and your analysis has added an indispensable dimension to our discussions. We thought we’d lose you after Chapter 88, but here you are again, with fresh insights. Onward and upward to Chapter 135! Please know you are appreciated!
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