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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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You've had glimpses of Ishmael's fondness for knowledge. Now we get the first of many essaylike chapters that display his knowledge of whales and whaling and their importance to human society. Whalers, he says, have been treated unjustly. They're considered butchers, even though generals who are greater butchers are awarded medals. In the past, kings and countries have valued whalers highly, and in the mid-19th century the industry produces millions of dollars for the United States. Whalers have explored the world from South America to Japan.

In reply to the charge that whaling is an unfit subject for great literature, Ishmael points out that the first account of the Leviathan-a biblical name for a great beast often thought to be a whale-was written by none other than Job. (The biblical story of Job will become even more important later in Moby-Dick.) And Ishmael feels that if he learns anything in life, it will be a result of whaling. A whaling ship, he says, is "My Yale College and my Harvard."


You've already seen that for Ishmael whales represent the mysterious and unknown. He obsessively gathers facts about the creatures in an attempt to understand not just whales but the entire universe. As the story unfolds, you'll see whether Ishmael gains that understanding.


Ishmael introduces the officers and men of the Pequod. The chief mate is Starbuck, a Nantucket Quaker, a courageous but cautious man. If he has a weakness it is that his courage allows him to confront natural but not man-made horrors. (This flaw becomes important toward the end of the book.) Ishmael's thoughts about Starbuck lead him to think about people in general: Though particular individuals or groups sometimes seem evil or stupid, people "in the ideal" remain noble. In a democracy a common sailor has as much dignity as a king. It is for this reason, Ishmael says, that God gives his sailors tragic graces and illuminates them with a heavenly light. God is democratic; he allowed John Bunyan, a convict, to write the great Christian allegory, Pilgrim's Progress; He allowed Andrew Jackson to rise from humble origins to the presidency.


Greek and Elizabethan tragedies had as heroes noble figures-common folk were relegated to lesser roles and to comedy. But in a democratic society like America's, Melville says, tragedy can involve common people. Many critics have noted the similarities between Moby-Dick and tragedies like Shakespeare's King Lear.

The second mate, Stubb, a happy-go-lucky, Cape Cod man, is completely undisturbed by the more profound thoughts that might disturb Starbuck or Ishmael. The third mate, Flask, comes from Martha's Vineyard. He's always ready to battle whales, but far from regarding them as the majestic beasts they are to Ishmael, he treats them as "a species of magnified mouse."


Melville presents three very different types of men: Starbuck, sober and cautious; Stubb, matter-of-fact and easy-going; Flask, hot-tempered and unimaginative. Melville, it seems, wants to test how three very different approaches to life stand up to the obstacles met on the voyage.

Each mate selects a harpooner to sit in his boat. Starbuck chooses Queequeg; Stubb, the Indian, Tashtego; and Flask, an African, Daggoo. And the rest of the Pequod's crew? Though the ship is American and led by an American, its crew is as international as the U.S. Army or the gangs of workers who built the nation's railroads and canals. The Pequod's men stem from many nations, but Ishmael says nearly all of them share a common trait-they're from islands and therefore Isolatoes-solitary.


In describing the Pequod's crew, Melville makes three important points. First, he again links whaling to other types of American expansion. Second, he emphasizes the isolation of the men. Ishmael began the book as an islander and Isolato himself. He's found brotherhood with Queequeg, but will the other isolated men find brotherhood? Melville makes his third point by manning the Pequod with sailors from many corners of the world. The ship is a microcosm-a little world that symbolizes the world at large. The voyage is one of self-discovery-for the crew and for you, too, as you think over the events of the journey.

Ishmael ends Chapter 27 on an ominous note, hinting that few of the crew will survive the journey. Certainly Little Pip won't survive; called a coward on the boat, he will be hailed as a hero in heaven.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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