|Chapter 35 illustration by Robert Fearns
Chapters 33-40 of Moby-Dick total 36 pages and conclude at page 179 of my Library of America edition of this classic novel…still no sighting of the big guy, himself, however. Chapter 41 is titled “Moby Dick” and Chapter 42 is called “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Will Moby Dick make an actual appearance then? Well…
These chapters are largely introductory ones in which the hierarchy aboard the ship is explained, beginning with the high status of the “harpooneer,” “a class unknown of course in any other marine other than the whale fleet.” The status of the harpooning class is rather obvious when one considers that the success of the entire three-year voyage largely depends on having competent whale-stickers on board.
After contrasting the living arrangements of the men and their officers, Melville describes the ship’s three mast-heads, high perches manned by whale-spotters in two-hour ships during daylight hours almost as soon as whaling vessels leave port. According to our narrator, an ordinary sailor will spend the equivalent of “several months” at the mast-head over the course of a long voyage.
The reader also learns in this section of the book of the regimented hierarchy of the “captain’s table,” a table in which the officers are served in order of rank – including the quantity of food they can expect to receive. Melville sets the scene this way: “Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his war-like but still deferential cubs…They were as little children before Ahab…” We also get a peek at the contrast between what happens at the Captain’s table and the atmosphere at that same table when the harpooneers use it for their own meal. Let’s just say that the young serving boy seriously fears that, if he is not careful, he might just become part of the cannibals’ meal.
Up on the quarter-deck, Captain Ahab gives his crew the kind of charismatic pep-talk that few would have expected from the usually reticent captain. By the end of Ahab’s tirade, all but a handful of those on board (mostly of the officer class) are more than willing to risk life and limb to help the captain avenge the loss of leg to the great Moby Dick.
Dive Deeper (by George Cotkin), my companion piece to the novel, uses these chapters to offer another set of interesting insights into Melville’s themes, the influence of Moby-Dick on generations of writers, and Melville’s conscious effort to transform the novel into something more important than a money-maker. The country’s struggle to survive the slavery issue – and race relations, in general – are, according to Cotkin, “resounding themes in Moby-Dick,” something obvious even to a reader like me who often struggles to identify “theme.”
More surprising, is Norman Mailer’s revelation of how greatly he patterned his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, after what he “stole” from Moby-Dick: “I was sure everyone would know. I had Ahab in it, and I suppose the mountain was Moby Dick.”
I am particularly fond, this time around, of the reading offered of Chapter 34 by Charlie Phillips. Mr. Phillips has a pleasant, and surprisingly easy to follow, Scottish accent that works very well for this chapter about the captain’s dinner table. Here’s a YouTube video of what I believe is the correct Charlie Phillips as he explains his studies of Bottlenose Dolphins off Scotland’s west coast…and a link to the chapter itself.
Chapter 60 was just released today by the Big Read people, so I am rapidly losing ground. My four-month project to read Moby-Dick and Dive Deeper together is starting to look more like a six-month project.