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Moby-Dick Recap: Chapters 106-119
Ahab sets the stage for a doomed ending
Perhaps you saw this viral Tweet a few weeks ago, as I did. Honestly, once you’re knee deep in M Dick, everything becomes a reference to the novel, even just hearing about something nautical has me shaking in an odd state of reverence. But this Tweet appearing on my timeline was really something else, I was awestruck to learn about it and it seems like a chapter right out of the book.
It's also incredible that we didn't learn this about sperm whales until 2008 and an actual photograph of it wasn’t captured until 2017. Somewhere, Melville is weeping in his grave, thinking about the beautiful chapter he could have written about whales sleeping vertically in groups, if only he’d known. So many of the quote tweets on this photo of whales napping are like, “it me” or “me and the girls” and what’s funny is that is probably what Melville would have done with this fact. After introducing this strange sleeping behavior of sperm whales, he’d end the chapter with how it actually says something about the way we as humans prefer to sleep.
Remember back during the recap of Chapters 87-95 when I asked, “Where even is Ahab?” It seemed like our central character had barely been a presence at all during those chapters, but as we move into Chapters 106-119, he is certainly moving to the foreground now. But still, not always in the manner I expected. Did I expect “Ahab’s Leg” to be primarily about how he accidentally pierced his groin with his whalebone leg? No, I did not.
We’re also well into the last fifth of the novel and Ishmael decides to devote two chapters to the backstory of two characters we’ve never met before, "The Carpenter" (Chapter 107) and "The Blacksmith" (Chapter 112). And Ahab commissions work from them both in subsequent chapters afterward, a new leg in “Ahab and the Carpenter” (Chapter 108) and a special harpoon in “The Forge” (Chapter 113), respectively. I have no idea why we needed to briefly return to play format for “Ahab and the Carpenter,” but I guess it was cool when Ahab worked with the blacksmith to forge his Edward Scissorhands harpoon in human blood?
The most memorable chapter in this week’s readings for me was “Queequeg in His Coffin.” I’ve been seeing that chapter’s title looming in the table of contents and dreading its arrival, fearing that it was the end for one of my favorite characters. It isn’t, in fact something much more interesting happens. Queequeg falls severely ill from working in the hold, but stoically faces death, forgoing the usual sea-custom of being buried in his hammock and instead requesting that the carpenter create him a coffin made out of a Nantucket canoe. Once the coffin is made, he asks to be “lifted into his final bed, that he might make trial of its comforts, if any it had.” He requests his harpoon, Yojo statue, and other beloved possessions to be laid in there too. But when he is at the edge of death, he simply decides not to die:
—at a critical moment, he had just recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore had changed his mind about dying: he could not die yet, he averred. They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.
Moby-Dick’s most memorable character continues to surprise and be unpredictable. I hope we get a few more Queequeg moments before its all over.
Everything else this week felt like a foreboding setup for the end. Ahab continues to act obsessed and insane, all the while tightening his control over the crew and most likely setting them up for what will surely be a doomed conclusion. While staying up overnight next to a dead whale, he receives a very Macbeth-like prophesy from Fedallah: he cannot die until “two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.” Ahab scoffs and believes himself to be safe because "such a sight we shall not soon see," but who else thinks seeing a hearse float on the ocean is as possible as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane?
I’ll conclude by sharing some of the renowned Rockwell Kent drawings from the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, which was first mentioned back in July. For a section that’s not exactly action-packed, there’s a good amount of illustrations that accompany this week’s readings.
To the left is Starbuck confronting Ahab in Chapter 109 about stopping the ship to fix the leaky casks, and to the right is Ahab in Chapter 118 fucking around with his quadrant before throwing it to the ground and trampling it in frustration.
Here is Perth, the miserable blacksmith whose drinking ruined his life and instead of killing himself over it, he joined a whaling ship.
Oh, and here is a depiction of Ahab’s little mishap, I guess. When I read this chapter, I must say I didn’t envision this happening in the middle of town, lol.
Anyway, ‘til next week, as we continue to head straight into a typhoon in pursuit of Moby Dick.