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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 2: THE CARPET-BAG

Ishmael leaves New York and arrives in New Bedford. Though New Bedford is the major American whaling port, Ishmael wants to begin his voyage from nearby Nantucket Island because that was where American whaling began.

NOTE:

Whaling, as Melville tells you, has a history that goes back thousands of years. By the mid-19th century it was overwhelmingly an American business, centered in New England and especially in New Bedford and Nantucket. In 1846 (five years before Moby-Dick was published), the American whaling fleet numbered more than 700 vessels. Most of these ships sailed the Pacific, which held the largest concentration of the most valuable prey, the sperm whale. A lucky ship might return from a three-or four-year voyage with $80,000 worth of oil.

It's a bitter cold December night as Ishmael walks through New Bedford seeking a place to stay. The first inn he comes to, The Crossed Harpoons, is too expensive for him, and the second, The Sword-Fish Inn, too jolly-Ishmael is still in a bad mood and doesn't want to be around cheerful people. At last he sees The Spouter-Inn, whose proprietor is Peter Coffin-a disturbing name, but (in historical fact as well as in this novel) a common one in Nantucket. The Spouter-Inn is rundown and windblown-though on the subject of wind, Ishmael quotes an old writer (himself) that it makes a difference where you are when the wind is bitterly blowing. Lazarus, the beggar, chatters his teeth while the rich man, Dives, observes the cold night from the comfort of his coal-warmed room. (In the Bible, Lazarus is the poor man rewarded in Heaven while Dives is damned to the fires of hell-which is why Ishmael says Dives will wear that redder silken wrapper later.) Ishmael has once again lost himself in knowledge, philosophy, and in a little self-pity. But he shakes himself out of it with a bad pun: "...no more of this blubbering now, we are going a-whaling and there is plenty of that yet to come."

CHAPTER 3: THE SPOUTER-INN

Ishmael enters The Spouter-Inn and sees an oil painting so grimy he can't make out its subject. Does that black blob in the center of the picture represent the universe? King Lear's blasted heath? At last, Ishmael decides it depicts a whale.



NOTE:

Observe, once again, how Melville takes a common object-in this case a bad painting-and uses it to serve a deeper symbolic purpose. The painting, Ishmael knows, represents something, but what? What do objects, events mean? That's a question Melville will be asking over and over again. Even when Ishmael decides the artist has painted a whale, his question isn't really answered-for we know that to him whales themselves stand for the unknown.

Directly across from the strange painting is a group of clubs, spears, lances, and harpoons, reminders of how violent an occupation whaling is. Ishmael enters the inn's public room (bar), where the landlord tells him he'll have to share a bed with a harpooner. Ishmael has little choice but to agree. After dinner, the crew from the whaling ship Grampus invades the public room. Ishmael is curious about one of the crew, a tall, brawny man who is sober and quiet while the others are noisily drunk. The man is Bulkington, and he will later be Ishmael's shipmate, also silent on board ship.

Ishmael, less and less enthusiastic about sharing a bed with a harpooner, tells the landlord he prefers to sleep on a bar bench. He can't make himself comfortable, however, and goes back to his room. The landlord, who enjoys seeing his guest's nervousness, increases it by announcing that the harpooner is out peddling his head. Ishmael's amazement grows when the landlord adds that the harpooner won't have any luck because New Bedford is overstocked with heads. At last comes the explanation-the harpooner has been selling embalmed heads from New Zealand, and still has one left.

The landlord now tries to calm Ishmael. That bed, he says, is large enough for four harpooners. Ishmael studies the bed, studies the room, and even tries on a mysterious object that looks like a large door mat, before going to sleep.

The roommate enters. He holds a light in one hand and his embalmed head in the other. His face is covered with purple, yellow, and black markings that Ishmael takes for brawl injuries before realizing that they're tattoos. When the dark-skinned man undresses, Ishmael sees that the tattoos cover him from head to toe. He is a South Sea islander, Ishmael decides, perhaps a cannibal.

Terror and curiosity fighting within him, Ishmael watches as the islander reaches into a heavy coat, pulls out a small black wooden idol, and sets it in the fireplace. Soon he has lit a fire, and is offering the idol burnt biscuits, all the time singing a strange prayer.

Ishmael is ready to flee. But before he can the harpooner takes his tomahawk and leaps into bed. "Landlord, for God's sake," Ishmael cries. The landlord runs in, grinning, and says that the harpooner, Queequeg, would never harm him.

All at once Queequeg acts comfortably and civilly, and Ishmael realizes his fears are exaggerated. They sleep soundly.

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