Tag Archives: Melville

Anything You Want, Sir

obsequious – adj.  obedient to a servile extent

Classical Usage:  Handsome George poses as a powerful man of Spanish decent during his daring escape.  It works, and he has the entire inn scampering after requesting a private room, “The landlord was all obsequious, and a relay of about seven Negroes, old and young, male and female, little and big, were soon whizzing about, like a covey of partridges, bustling, hurrying, treading on each other’s toes, and tumbling over each other, in their zeal to get Mas’r’s room ready . . .”  I’m also partial to HBS’s use of “all” as an adverb, and the appearance of “whizzing” and “zeal” in the same sentence reminded me a little of Moby-Dick.

Classically Mad Usage:  Often, I order our obstreperous offspring to be more obsequious.  (I’m feeling a little Melvillesque today, too.)

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Posted by on May 16, 2012 in Uncle Tom's Cabin


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The Wrap-up – Third Day

Were you a little reluctant to come aboard the final day of the wrap-up?  Who can blame you, it’s Day Three, and there is a general sense of foreboding in the air.

Don’t get down, I promise that we’ll discuss Moby Dick as the embodiment of Good today, but first we need to address a few of the Susan Wise Bauer’s questions, how about we begin with the one about beginnings?  And ending, too, of course.

We start with a lonely, depressed Ishmael seeking out the water, and after exhausting the possible plot, we are left with solitary, monomaniacal Ishmael surrounded by nothing but water.  As one of my dear friends* quipped the night of our Starbuck’s wrap-up session, “You said you wanted water, Ishmael, well, you’ve got water now!”

As we discussed yesterday, Ishmael is left with nothing else to do, but to spin this tale for all to hear.  And so on the loom of this fiber theme, he begins with the thread of his own story, adds Queequeg, twists them together with the other sailors on the Pequod, and then weaves in the final two, inseparably tangled lines – those of Ahab and Moby Dick.  It is this flawed dual cord that causes the unraveling of all those on board.  And it is the actual hemp rope itself that wraps around the captain’s neck and brings him to his watery grave.

But isn’t this what he deserved?  As much as we would have loved to see Starbuck, Pip, Queequeg, and even goofy ol’ Stubb survive, rooting for Ahab was not in the picture.  He was evil, and evil must be overcome by good.

It was my dear husband who first threw the “Moby Dick is God” theory at me, and I won’t lie, I didn’t buy it at first, but I listened intently.  Then in our discussion of SWB’s final two rhetoric questions, “What is Melville’s argument? And, is it true?” I began to see what lay beneath the suface.

There is more to this theory than the White Whale simply being the antithesis of Captain Ahab.  Time and time again Melville reminds us that the created world under the sea rolls on “as it rolled five thousand years ago.”   And to mirror that closing sentence, the opening quote from the Extracts is a somewhat altered line from Genesis, “And God created great whales.”  For Melville, whales are divine creatures, he doesn’t tell us the same about mankind.

Moby Dick is a protector of his world, who defends it when provoked.  It’s quite an understatement to say that whales are bigger than humans, but in the novel we see that even in man’s attempt to paint ships black and adorn them with the teeth of their prey, they are still nothing but toothpick masts to the supreme creatures who swam untouched by the Flood.  And despite Ishmael’s pursuit to understand the great leviathan in terms of science, history, art, and literature, Moby Dick remains a unknown power to be feared.

And the wise do fear him, Starbuck tells us at the beginning of the voyage, “I’ll have no man on my ship that doesn’t have a healthy fear of whales.” (or something like that, I couldn’t find the quote, so feel free to help me out.)  Pip seemingly prays to him at the end of Chapter 40, “Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!

The lore of Moby Dick speaks of his omnipresence.  The one-that-got-away stories in Chapter 41 tell of him being multiple places on the globe at the same time, and “some whaleman should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal . . .” 

And finally, we have the great paradoxes of the novel where life enfolds death, and death cages life.  A coffin becomes a life preserver, dead whales provide gifts of sweet smelling ambergis and light-giving oil, Tashtego’s life is trapped in a dead head, and the death ship named after an extinct tribe traps the life of its innocent.  Above all, he who says he is going to destroy evil is truly evil, and that which he seeks to destroy is truly good.

And so, with those paradoxes in place we give a hearty “Aye!” to the question of Truth.  For death has been swallowed up by death.

*Please note that although I have not specifically credited the ideas of my intelligent and witty friends Jeannette and Christine in this wrap-up write-up, that anything worthy of a “Wow” or a “Hahaha” surely first belonged to them in thought and word, and was only here by me recorded.


Posted by on May 6, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Whale of a Tail

Mostly because increasing the cute factor of our blog seems like a good idea, I present to you this picture from my archives:

But also, because I think Melville could have benefited from a similar technique.

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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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All the Better to Facepalm

We’ve had several Luther spottings on our classical journey.  There was that time we ran into him in the Slough of Despond, and then he and Pearl were kindred spirits according to some of the Bostonians.  But now, we’ve run across his good friend and fellow Reformer, Philipp Melancthon.

Ishmael really likes physiognomy, assessing character based on head shape, you remember the connection between Queequeg and President Washington, right?  Well, Melancthon apparently has something in common with both the Bard and the whales Melville so revered.

But in most creatures, nay in man himself, very often the brow is but a mere strip of alpine land lying along the snow line.  Few are the foreheads which like Shakspeare’s or Melancthon’s rise so high, and descend so low, that the eyes themselves seem clear, eternal, tideless mountain lakes; and all above them in the forehead’s wrinkles, you seem to track the antlered thoughts descending there to drink, as the Highland hunters track the snow prints of the deer.  But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Diety and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.


Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Melville and Shakespeare

In my former life, studying English in college and teaching it at various high schools, I gained a certain familiarity with Shakespeare.   I always enjoyed reading the Bard, and seeing good performances of his works is one of my Very Favorite Things.   I hope to introduce my children to this love someday soon.

Skimming Philbrick’s work on Moby Dick let me in on the little fact that Melville shared a similar love for Shakespeare, and it became obvious to me early on that one of his favorite works must have been Macbeth.

My first clue was way back in Chapter 32.  You remember it – the chapter on Cetology that I took issue with earlier.   At the very end of the chapter, as I was reading along, it started to sound very familiar.  Melville is going on about various types of whales with all manner of “uncouth names.”   Then he says this:

But I omit them as altogether obsolete; and can hardly help suspecting them for mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing.

It was the “signifying nothing” part that took me back to Macbeth.  Remember this famous quote?

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Rather misquoted, but it must have come from Shakespeare, right?

So that was my first clue, but I like the second reference even better.   Remember the witches in Macbeth?   Their main purpose was probably foreshadowing Macbeth’s demise, although they are fun to watch as well.  Like Shakespeare, Melville uses plenty of foreshadowing, as we’ve already discussed.    The witches give Macbeth some interesting predictions about his death that make him think he is invincible, since the predictions seem so impossible.   Remember?  “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d  be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.”   And this one?  “Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”    Macbeth thinks that his vile deeds will not come back to haunt him, for after all, how could the distant woods come to the castle?  And everyone is “born of a woman,” so therefore, I can’t be harmed by anyone!   Those of you who have read this play know that the woods DO come to the castle and someone not (technically) born of a woman does serve up Macbeth’s head.  He is not invincible after all.

Now let’s see how Melville works this into Moby Dick.   Ahab is the character feeling invincible here.   Not only invincible, but perhaps even immortal!  (Chapter 117)   There are also strange predictions here, made by “the Parsee,” that lead Ahab to this conclusion.   These things couldn’t possibly happen, therefore, my quest must be possible, and I will not perish.  Or so thinks our Captain.    The Parsee predicts that Ahab will see two caskets before he dies, one not made of mortal hands, and one of American wood.    Ahab’s response?  “Ha!  Such a sight we shall not soon see!”   He also predicts that he will preceed Ahab in death, but then re-appear.   The third prediction is that “only hemp can kill thee,” which Ahab thinks means death by hanging at the gallows.  None of these predictions seem very likely, so with a laugh of derision, mad Ahab proclaims himself “immortal on land and on sea.”   As we know (or have guessed), Ahab is not immortal, just as Macbeth was not.

Well, what do you think?   Do you see the similarities?  Are you convinced?  Perhaps you can find some more similarities between Macbeth and Moby Dick.  I’d love to hear them!


Posted by on April 21, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Here Fishy-Fishy

brit – n.  minute marine crustaceans

Classical Usage:  Melville titles an entire chapter, short as they may be, with this noun, and I was certainly relieved to find out that the right whales aren’t eating the pale British people, but instead feed on these little itsy-bitsy yellow ocean dwellers.  For awhile I was just afraid this was just his allegorical way of dissing the writings of Austen, Dickens, and Brontë

Classically Mad Usage:  This is going to be handy knowledge if we ever decide to get a pet right whale.


Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Please Pass the Calabash

calabash – n.  large gourds from a tropical American evergreen tree of the same name

Classical Usage:  Melville uses this word a couple of times.  First, Queequeg describes a punchbowl made from a calabash.  Interesting, since his island of Kokovoko is supposedly in the South Pacific.  It seems we’ve discovered another Melville geographic discrepancy.   Then later, Elijah mentions a story about Captain Ahab spitting in a silver calabash.  According to my endnotes we’ll never learn the rest of that story, so who knows what Melville meant?

Classically Mad Usage:  If I take our dear author’s lead it seems I can use this word in any way bowl-like way I want.  And if anyone tries to correct me I’ll just take my defense next to Herman.


Posted by on April 4, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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No Trip to Hawaii for Me

scoria – n.  rough, dark chunks of lava

Classical Usuage:  In Chapter 6 Melville describes New Bedford and the fancy houses, parks and gardens belonging to the citizens.  He asks, “Whence came they?  how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?  Does Melville actually think the New World is the remnants of a volcano?  He does think whales are fish, so I’m not necessary relying on the accuracy of his scientific statements.

Classically Mad Usage:  Scoria gives me the heeby-jeebies much like fingernails on a chalkboard, or forks on a bare plate.  The texture, the sound it makes against other pieces of scoria – yeck!

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Posted by on April 1, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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Don Quixote, Christian, and Ishmael Walk Onto a Boat

About ten months ago Jeannette, Christine, and I were sitting in Panera having our first ever official book outing.  We were at the midway point of Don Quixote, and more than a little perplexed about what exactly we were supposed to be learning from reading the adventures of this crazed knight errant.

Then an “Aha!” moment struck.  Maybe it wasn’t just about DQ.  In fact, maybe we just needed to lay DQ as our foundation, and then later we would be able to come back to him and say, in our best snooty, overly-educated tones, “Ah, yes.  Well, if you compare this author’s approach to that of Cervantes you will plainly see that . . .”It seemed like a long shot, but at the time it was all we had, because as mothers we’d already dealt with our share of potty language, imaginary giants, and cardboard costumes.  We were looking for something more.

Well folks, it’s been happening, have you noticed?  Our authors are talking about each other, referring to other classics, building upon the past, and none more than Melville.  Here’s the end of Chapter 26:

Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!  who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; . . .

Okay, I’ll stop there, because I don’t know anything about Andrew Jackson.  But, Bunyan and Cervantes?  Those are our guys!

It seems that Melville has switched in this chapter from first person narrative by Ishmael, to an omnipotent author who gives us not only backgrounds on multiple characters, but also his own philosophical statements.
Here we get a little peak into Melville’s life as a writer.  This plea to a “democratic God” is for himself, that he may be given the ability to produce a culture shifting story, the likes of Don Quixote or Pilgrim’s Progress. Melville, a mere 30-something American is hoping to create characters that begin as the every-man and end as the men every man remembers.

Then again, maybe this is Ishmael’s voice begging the “Spirit of Equality” to make him, and the motley crew of the Pequod heroes in their own right – to elevate the common with a chivalrous pilgrimage toward the destruction of evil.

I don’t know, it seems my own snooty voice is rather indecisive about this whole mess.  Please weigh in with your own.


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Don’t Fib to Me

cetology – n.  the branch of mammal science that studies the 80 or so different varieties of whales

Classical Usuage:  Familiarize yourself with this word, because Melville uses it all of the time.  It comes up in the Extracts before you can even get to the real page numbers.  An entire chapter is named Cetology. And, although our Resident Scientist Jeannette will be taking issue with some of Mr. Melville’s cetology, he intersperses it throughout the book.

Classically Mad Usage:  Apparently, I’m already a cetologist.  I can identify the differences between Whale Tub Toys, Whale Dress Embroidery, Whale Baby Bum Applique, and a Whale of a Mess.  Oh, and I can spot a Whale of a Tale on land or sea.


Posted by on March 27, 2012 in Moby-Dick


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