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What Moby Dick and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have in common (so far):

Both were written by men with agendas. Victor Hugo (HoND) wanted people to pay attention to all of the admittedly gorgeous architecture in Paris, so he wrote a book featuring it so prominently that it threatened to overwhelm the plot. Herman Melville (Moby D) noticed that no one had yet written an entertaining yet educational book about the whaling industry and endeavored to do just that. Whether or not he succeeded, I don't know quite yet. But I did learn about how they used to price booze back in the day.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn begins with Ishmael describing an oil painting. It's in poor shape, marred by smoke and graffiti to the point that no one can tell what it's supposed to be, though Ishmael thinks it might be of a whale impaling itself on the three masts of a ship.

Once he's done talking about art, Ishmael goes on to describe the rest of the inn, using phrases that make me cringe. We are treated to "a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears" (pg. 12), one of which is shaped like a sickle and could only have been used, in Ishmael's words, by "a monstrous cannibal and savage" (pg. 12).

(Was I naïve to expect that Moby Dick would be less racist than The Hunchback of Notre Dame?)

The innkeeper informs Ishmael that there is no room at the inn, and he will have to give birth to the Messiah in a stable share a bed with someone if he wants to stay the night. The man that Ishmael would be sharing with is a harpooneer who's out wandering the streets at the moment. Ishmael agrees to the conditions and tries to wait up for his mysterious bedmate's return, spending the evening watching bar patrons come and go.

pg. 14: I sat down on an old wooden settle, carved all over like a bench on the Battery. At one end a ruminating tar was still further adorning it with his jack-knife, stooping over and diligently working away at the space between his legs. He was trying his hand at a ship under full sail, but he didn't make much headway, I thought.

Ishmael: Art Critic

Eventually Ishmael gets restless and irritable, and goes on a private little rant in the narrative regarding his sleeping arrangements.

pg. 16: No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. ... Nor was there any earthly reason why I as a sailor should sleep two in a bed, more than anybody else; for sailors no more sleep two in a bed at sea, than bachelor Kings do ashore. To be sure they all sleep together in one apartment, but you have your own hammock, and cover yourself with your own blanket, and sleep in your own skin.

How, exactly, would you go about sleeping in a skin other than your own? Apart from the obvious, I mean.

Fed up with the situation, Ishmael tries to create a makeshift bed out of a couple of benches and a chair. It fails miserably. Ishmael asks Mr. Coffin where the harpooneer is.

ISHMAEL: What kind of jerk stays out 'til midnight, anyhow?
COFFIN: The kind of jerk who peddles heads.
ISHMAEL: Come again?
COFFIN: Peddles heads.
ISHMAEL: I am going to ask you to explain this to me one more time, and so help me God, if you do not give me a straight answer, I will kick you in the 'nads.
COFFIN: Dude's out trying to sell his shrunken head before Sunday.
COFFIN: 'Cause you can't sell shrunken heads to people on their way to church. That's just plain rude.
ISHMAEL: ...I'm going to go ahead and go to bed now.

While leading Ishmael to his room, Mr. Coffin talks about the bed he'll be sharing with the mysterious harpooneer, presumably to reassure him.

pg. 20:'s a nice bed: Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced.

...I'm sorry, what?

Translated from ancient New Englander-speak, Mr. Coffin is essentially saying that Ishmael and the harpooneer will be spending the night together in Mr. Coffin's own marriage bed. Somehow, I don't think Ishmael finds that comforting.

They reach the room, and Mr. Coffin leaves Ishmael to it. Ishmael snaps into RPG adventurer-mode and immediately starts going through all his new roommate's things.

pg. 21: But what is this on the chest? [...] I can compare it to nothing but a large door mat, ornamented at the edges with little tinkling tags something like the stained porcupine quills round an Indian Moccasin. There was a hole or slit in the middle of this mat, as you see the same in South American ponchos. But could it be possible that any sober harpooneer would get into a door mat, and parade the streets of any Christian town in that sort of guise?

Could it be possible that you would not be a judgmental creeper, Ishmael?

Of course not. Instead, he puts the "doormat" on like a poncho, sees himself in the mirror, freaks out, and takes it off.

At this point, I am going to start pretending that Ishmael is supposed to be a naïve, backwards sort of person from a very small town who has no idea how the rest of society works. Because if that is not the case... I don't know how I can even deal with taking the rest of this book seriously.

Ishmael finally stops rifling through other people's belongings and gets into bed. He's juuust starting to drift off when, at long last, the harpooneer enters. Instead of saying hello, Ishmael opts to continue lying in bed like a dead fish and watch the harpooneer go about his before-bed rituals, which surprisingly enough include actual rituals.

The harpooneer puts away his shrunken head, takes off his beaverskin hat, undresses, and makes an offering to a tiny idol.* Throughout this scene, Ishmael repeatedly describes the harpooneer's skin as "purplish-yellow." For those of you who are not art students, let me explain exactly why this is flippin' ridiculous.

If you take yellow paint, and mix in purple paint, what color do you get?


So if the harpooneer's skin is a combination of purple and yellow, what color is it?


Why Ishmael could not simply say "this guy had brown skin," I do not know. But if he describes trees as having blueish-yellow leaves in the future, I will not be surprised.

Anyway, the harpooneer finishes his prayers, lights up his combination tomahawk/pipe, and hops into bed with Ishmael. It is at this point that Ishmael decides to reveal his existence to the harpooner by shrieking like a banshee. This goes over about as well as you'd think.

pg. 25: "Who-e debel you?"–he at last said–"you no speak-e, damn-me, I kill-e."


pg. 25: "Speak-e! tell-e me who-ee be, or dam-me, I kill-e!" again growled the cannibal, while his horrid flourishings of the tomahawk scattered the hot tobacco ashes about me till I thought my linen would get on fire.

Fortunately for Ishmael, the landlord arrives swiftly to diffuse the situation.

pg. 26: "Don't be afraid now," said he, grinning again. "Queequeg here wouldn't harm a hair on your head."

"Stop your grinning," shouted I, "and why didn't you tell me that the infernal harpooneer was a cannibal?"

"I thought ye know'd it;–didn't I tell ye, he was a peddlin' heads around town?–but turn flukes again and go to sleep. Queequeg, look here–you sabbee me, I sabbee you–this man sleepe you–you sabbee?"

"Me sabbee plenty"–grunted Queequeg, puffing away at his pipe and sitting up in bed.

So many dashes. All of the dashes.

The word "sabbee" has bugged me ever since I was a kid reading an abridged version of this book. After much Googling, I have found that it is, in fact, a really real word, for reals, no seriously it's a word you guys. According to this dude, it is the Portugese word for "know," also spelt sabee and savee. Considering the amount of Portugese that is to this very day spoken in New Bedford, I think the internet's explanation is reasonable. (And if it is true, then I'd suspect "sabbee" would also be related to the English word "savvy," in which case my childhood would at long last begin to make some semblance of sense.)

In other news, I am easily annoyed by words. Carry on!

Ishmael complains that he doesn't want Queequeg smoking in bed because he doesn't want to catch fire. Whiner.

pg. 26: This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied, and again politely motioned me to get into bed–rolling over to one side as much as to say–I won't touch a leg of ye.

"Good night, landlord," said I, "you may go."

I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

And it's at about this point that tiny![personal profile] ambrmerlinus became a huge Queequeg fan.

Looking back at the chapter, I think what Melville intended to do was set up Ishmael as a minor racist devoid of self-awareness, only to have his world turned on its head by forcing him to sleep with Queequeg. It might have worked better if Queequeg didn't speak broken English with such a painfully written-out accent. Here's hoping Queequeg gets better treatment as the novel goes on. Because he is secretly my favorite, and damnit, he deserves better.

*According to Ishmael, the idol is "a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the color of a three days' old Congo baby." (pg. 24) I would offer commentary on that description, but it would mostly consist of me smashing my forehead into the keyboard.


Other adventures in Moby Dick reading include:
Part One
Part Two (You Are Here)
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen
Part Sixteen
Part Seventeen
Part Eighteen
Part Nineteen
Part Twenty
Part Twenty-One
Part Twenty-Two


ambrmerlinus: Portrait of a young white man with a flowing blond mohawk, in profile. (Default)

February 2012

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