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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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Ishmael wakes the next morning to find Queequeg's arms thrown around him affectionately, a sensation that makes him remember an unpleasant childhood experience, when he awoke to feel what he thought was a detached hand pressing down on him.

As Ishmael watches Queequeg dress, he is both amused and impressed by the harpooner's mix of strange customs and politeness. Queequeg dresses backwards, first putting on his beaver hat, then, while hiding under the bed, wrestling on his boots. Only later does he step into his trousers and shave-with his harpoon.

Ishmael goes down to breakfast with an assorted group of sailors who look strangely out of place on dry land-a reminder that the world Ishmael is about to join is in some ways very different from the one he's about to leave.

You see another indication of the importance of whaling when Ishmael goes outside to explore New Bedford. The streets are jammed with people from every corner of the globe, all drawn here by whaling. The parks, mansions, even the beautiful women testify to the wealth that the industry has brought to New Bedford.


Wrapped in bearskin against a day that has grown sleety, Ishmael enters the small Whaleman's Chapel, a traditional stop for men about to embark on a long whaling voyage. Silent men and women eye the tablets that memorialize those killed while hunting whales. At least the survivors of men who die on land have the comfort of knowing where their loved ones lie buried; these mourners are denied even that. Ishmael broods on death, asking himself does it cause sorrow when religion teaches that the dead live on in immortal joy? Yet somehow he cheers up. There is death in whaling, he admits, but the life we live on earth may be unimportant compared to what comes later.


From the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, with its mention of funerals and coffin warehouses, death is a strong presence in the novel. Here you're reminded how close death is to sailors on board a whaling ship. Ishmael now accepts the possibility with equanimity, but then he hasn't really come face to face with the danger yet.

A robust, elderly man enters the church. He is Father Mapple, once a harpooner, and now the famous minister of the chapel. With his white hair and red cheeks, he gives the impression of enormous vigor despite his age.

The pulpit of the church is so high off the ground that a regular staircase would take up too much room, so Father Mapple climbs a rope-and-wood ship's ladder, hauling it after him so that he finally stands alone and unreachable above the congregation.


Ishmael wonders why Father Mapple has used what seems like a cheap, theatrical trick to impress his audience. The climb up the ladder, he decides, must "symbolize something unseen." Melville wants you to remember that many objects and actions in the book have a symbolic meaning beyond the one you see at first. For now, Ishmael decides that Mapple's lofty perch symbolizes his withdrawal from the day to day concerns of the world. Do you agree? Melville will have further comments later in the novel.

As Ishmael continues to study the pulpit, he gives us another clue in understanding his story. "Yes," he says, "the world's a ship on its passage out." We may not be whalers; we may never set foot on the deck of a boat. But we are human beings who journey through life, and the story will have meaning for us as well.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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