Tag Archives: Ishmael

Vocab Flashback

The Return of the Native chapter 1

“The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had been.” 

Like Ishmael?
As in “Call me Ishmael” from Moby-Dick?

Way back when, we found the word quixotic in Oliver Twist and learned that Dickens was a fan of Cervantes.

I wonder if Hardy was a fan of Melville.

or maybe Hardy was a fan of the Bible.  Do you know who Ishmael was?  He was the son of Abraham and Hagar.  Nope, not Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Hagar.  She was Sarah’s Egyptian servant.  (Genesis 16).  Later Hagar and Ishmael were sent away from Abraham’s family to wander in the wilderness. (Genesis 21).

Today the word Ishmaelite can mean a descendent of Ishmael or it can mean someone who is a wanderer or cast out.

I get Melville’s name choice for his character, but how can Hardy call a place Ishmaelitish?
Is Egdon Heath a rejected place?  Does it refer to the untamed wilderness?  Is it a cast off?

Ishmaelitish.  Try to work that one into daily conversation.


Posted by on December 1, 2012 in Moby-Dick, The Return of the Native


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Strange Bedfellows

Remember that wonderful sleeping advice from Moby-Dick?

No, not that reading MD will work faster than an Ambien.  I’m talking about that part in Chapter 11 where Ishmael and Queequeg are tucked in for the night and offer these thoughts,

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room.  The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.

I really identified with that because we always keep our house cooler at night, despite the season. And, I always sleep with a knee or nose stuck out of the covers to supply the contrast.

So, I was terribly excited to run across similar sentiments when we are first introduced to the character Razumikhin in Crime and Punishment. 

Once he went a whole winter without heating his room, asserting that he even found it more pleasant, because one sleeps better in the cold.

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Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick


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The Wrap-up – Second Day

Fin Whale Skeleton at the
Grand Rapids Public Museum

Welcome to the second day of the wrap-up.  Have you patched up your whaling boat, and taken in a bit of rum to help you through this middle leg?

You might want it, for although our discussion remained focused on Moby-Dick we did channel our inner monomaniacs.  You see, we don’t think Ahab was the only one with that special character attribute.

Personally, we think our narrator might want to slap on a name tag, grab a cup of strong coffee, and give an introduction that sounds something like this, “Hi, call me Ishmael, I’m a monomaniac.”  He doesn’t portray himself as a single-minded crazy during the Pequod’s voyage, and we’re not asserting that he was, then.

You see, we think his monomaniacism (you like that word?) started as he was bobbing away on Queequeg’s coffin, and the expanse of the watery horizon enveloped him in complete abandonment.  Not unlike Pip, who suffered a deep character shift as the result of being left out-to-sea, Ishmael is alone. And although, when rescued by the Rachel he was no longer alone, he was still the lone.  The only survivor.  The One left to the tale.

The story of Ahab and Moby-Dick obviously weighed on his soul.  What other reason would a man have for researching all things whale related to an encyclopedic extent?  What kind of emotionally healthy human being would tattoo the measurements of a whale skeleton on his arm?  What normal person would describe things so that all the world is a whale, and all the whale is a world?  What sane wight would spend 135 chapters in first person narrative about someone, and something else, and then at the end throw in a quick epilogueial “Oh yeah, I was on the whale boat, and this is how I survived?”  Who else would lock himself in his study and write the day away while ignoring his family, and relentlessly bothering his reluctant author friend?

Wait, that was Melville.  Funny how that works, isn’t it?  Ishmael was hardly even a character.  Ishmael was not even his name.  His name was Herman Melville.  And the man was a monomaniac.  Moby-Dick swallowed him whole, and unlike Jonah, he stayed more than three days in the belly of that whale.

Moby-Dick might technically be classified as first person, but at times someone should have hollered “First person overboard!”  We prefer to call the Melville’s special point of view Omniscient First Person.

It was about the time we finished talking about how off-balanced Mellville was, that we started to get just a wee bit punchy ourselves.  We may or may not have broken into a small game of “What if Pixar did a movie called Finding Moby-Dick?”  Go ahead, take a second to play for yourself.  Don’t forget to imagine the multiple scenes where Ahab asks “Have you seen the White Whale?” and Dory answers, “I saw a white whale once!  P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way . . .” and give Mr. Ray a cameo shot as the Squid of chapter 59, and let Bruce and his buddies really get the most out of Cook’s sermon.  Speaking in whale is optional, but I will say this, the other Starbuck’s patrons didn’t seem to mind it too much.

Alright, now that you’re certain we ingested an entire calabash of rum punchiness I’ll leave you to ponder one last question before we furl the sails and try to get a little rest before tomorrow’s big day of whaling:

How would the presence of women have changed the story?  Suspend all reality that women didn’t come aboard whaling ships, and whaling isn’t exactly a commuter friendly job.  Instead, just imagine for a bit what it would have been like if these men would have gone home to their wives every evening?  Would the plot be different?

So, while you sleep on that, mentally prepare yourself for the most tempestuous day at sea yet.


Posted by on May 5, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Poor Pip. Poor Ishmael.

Chapter 93 The Castaway

Sperm Whaling. The Conflict
1858 Artist on stone: J. Cole.

Pip, the Pequod’s Cabin Boy, is not cut out to be in the whaling boats.  He is afraid of the whales.  At that close proximity, I would be too!  Did you watch Into the Deep?  Have you looked at the lithographs?  Did you read Melville’s descriptions of how large these creatures are?

If you’ve finished reading The Whale, you know that in a moment of terror Pip jumps from Stubb’s whaling boat and ends up being left behind in the ocean.  Eventually the Pequod rescues him, but poor Pip is never the same.  Melville writes,

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.

So at the very end of chapter 93 when Ishmael tells us…

For the rest, blame not Stubb too hardly, The thing is common in that fishery; and in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.

I don’t think I need to give a spoiler alert about the end of the book regarding Ishmael.  What I wonder is did Ishmael’s time as a castaway drown the “infinite of his soul“.  In what ways was Ishmael forever changed from his experience of being in the ocean like Pip when his own “ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably”?

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Posted by on May 3, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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What’s in a Name?

Well, everything!   As a parent (and a primogeniture), naming my children was a little stressful!  After all, the offspring will have to bear the joy or the burden of this name for possibly 100 years.   I often wonder if authors go  through a similar struggle when naming their characters.   It is possible that these names could last for even longer than a “real” child.   Melville’s characters are over 160 years old and still being talked about.

The names in Moby Dick run the gamut from funny (Stubb and Flask) to fun-to-say (Queequeg) to prophetic.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Elijah – the prophet echoing the biblical Elijah and his words of warning to Ahab.

Gabriel – the “angelic messenger” ship that gives the prophesy that Ahab will join their first mate in the depths for taking on Moby Dick.  (And I just might be a little partial to this name anyway – I gave it to my primogeniture.)

Ishmael – The cast-off son of Abraham in the bible, who was forced to wander in exile.  How appropriate!

Fadallah – OK, this might be a stretch, and remember, I have no notes in my edition of the book, but does Melville include “allah” on purpose to make us think negatively or think of untruth?

And, my personal favorite, Rachel – Melville puts it best – “She was Rachel, weeping for her children, for they were not.”


I could go on and on with this post, but I’ll leave it to you.  What were some of your favorite names in the book?



Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Who’s telling this story anyway?

Call me Ishmael” is how it all starts.  Alright, Ishmael, I’ll listen to your story.  It is your story, isn’t it?  Your story, Ahab’s story, Melville’s story…

Anyway.  The first thirty-five chapters are in Ishmael’s voice.  We learn what is happening through Ish’s point of view.  “Great!” I think.  When it comes time to answer “The Questions,”  I’ll know how to respond to the point-of-view one.  But something changes in chapter 36.  Did you notice the play-like scene instructions?

Chapter 36
The Quarter-Deck

Enter Ahab: Then, all.

Did someone swap my copy of the novel for a playbook?  Is there going to be a list of needed props coming up?  I’m not sure where to get a harpoon.

Chapter 37

The cabin; by the stern windows;
Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out.

More scene setting.
And then the story continues with Ahab.  His thoughts.  A monologue?  An internal monologue?  What’s going on here?  Where’s Ishmael?

Chapters 38 and 39 are more of the same.  Ishmael is no longer the narrator, instead the reader gets a peek into the minds of Starbuck and Stubbs.

Chapter 40?  Chapter 40 is a mini-play.  Didn’t Melville know I’m not slated to read dramas until 2018 at the earliest?   Is this where Melville does a little Shakespeare imitation?  I caught that “signifying nothing” misquote in chapter 32.  Maybe we should put these chapters on as a dramatic performance.  I’ll be the 5th Nantucket Sailor.  He only has one line.

The moral of my story is that the Point of View in Moby-Dick changes.


Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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I get it, Ishmael.

hypos – n. melancholy, coming from the word hypochondria

Classical Usage:  This is why Ishmael sets out to sea.  He’s depressed, and Melville’s description of his state is so vivid it brings you right there with our sailor, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; when ever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; when ever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hatas off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  I take issue with the whole November part, it’s a personal favorite, but the rest, is, well, wow.

Classically Mad Usage:  It’s nice to have a word other than melancholy to use for these situations.  Melancholy always sounded to cheery to me.


Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Wait Just a Minute

So, I’m reading along in Moby-Dick, Chapter 10, when one paragraph catches me by surprise.  It seems I’ve head this same argument before somewhere.   It sounded very familiar, very modern.   Ishmael has just become “bosom friends” with Queequeg, and when they retire for the night, Queequeg wants his new best buddy to join in his bedtime routine, which just happens to include a little worship of Yojo, Queeequeg’s personal idol. Here’s the paragraph:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church.   How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood?  But what is worship?  thought I.  Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood?   Impossible!   But what is worship?  – to do the will of God – that is worship.  And what is the will of God?  – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me – that is the will of God.  Now, Queequeg is my fellow man.  And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me?  Why unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship.  Consequently, I must unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.

After which, Ishmael does join in the idol worship, kissing its nose and such before turning in at peace with his conscience.

I’m sure there could be a whole theological treatise in this passage.  It sounds so logical, so straight-forward.  What a way to rationalize many behaviors that at first may have been thought to be against our conscience.   I’ll take issue with Ishmael here only on two points.  Number One:  Worship is NOT to do the will of God.  Worship IS God coming to us with mercy, forgiveness and strengthening.  Number Two:  I don’t believe that the way to “convert” others or get them to jump into your boat is to abandon your own vessel.   Conversion isn’t our job anyway!

I could go on and on…anyone else want to join the rant?


Posted by on March 26, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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I Think We Need A New Pulpit

Ishmael, our Moby Dick narrator, travels to a chapel in New Bedford while killing time waiting for his ship to Nantucket.   I enjoyed the description of the pulpit at the church, which was described as “very lofty,” but instead of having a ladder to ascend, Father Mapple climbed a rope ladder, drawing it up behind him, leaving him “impregnable in his little Quebec.”   Ishmael ponders the reason for this isolation of the pastor.  Could it symbolize spiritual withdrawal from the world?   Perhaps it is a “self-containing stronghold – a lofty Ehrenbreitstein…”   (An ancient fortress in Germany, in case you were wondering – thanks Wiki.)

Apparently, the rope ladder was not the only unusual feature of this pulpit.  The whole thing was designed to look like a ship, from the carvings on either side, to the scroll work on the “prow” of the thing.  Ishmael (and, after some contemplation, even I) enjoyed the analogy as the pulpit being

…ever the earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in it’s rear; the pulpit leads the world.  From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.  From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds.  Yes, the world’s a ship on it’s passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is it’s prow.

What an unusual idea!   Or maybe not so unusual… check out these real pulpits.  Let’s start our tour here:

I especially like the cross jutting out across the congregation.

Or, how about this one:

Much more ornate!   Check out the gold accents.  Nice.  This is a pulpit with “bling.”

Maybe this would suit your congregation:

I actually think this might be an organ, not a pulpit.  What say, you, Christina?   Guess we’d need a balcony first.

Another lovely ship:

The blue sail contrasts so nicely with the gold filigree.  And is that a rope ladder peeking from the side?
This could be Ahab at the prow of his ship, or Father Mapple exhorting his congregation – take your pick:

Suffice it to say, this pulpit/ship analogy has apparently struck others in the church designing business.  Perhaps they all read Moby Dick as well!   I may have to bring this to the attention of our pastors.  For more detail, read chapter VIII in the book.


Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Today’s Headlines in Moby Dick

In Chapter One, Ishmael is waxing poetic about Providence drawing up a programme for his voyage, placing it in between two more extensive performances:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

“Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael.

“Bloody Battle In Affghanistan.”

It struck me that these “headlines” could just as easily have appeared in today’s newspaper!   Bet Melville never intended to be quite this current.


Posted by on March 22, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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