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Free Study Guide-Moby Dick by Herman Melville-Free Booknotes Summary
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Chapters 2 - 3

Summary

Ishmael stuffs a few clothes in his bag and sets off for New Bedford, one of the main centers of the whaling industry. Ishmael reaches New Bedford on a cold Saturday night. There, he discovers that the small vessel headed for Nantucket has already sailed off and Ishmael cannot leave for Nantucket before Monday morning. Since it is in Nantucket that he wants to join a whaling ship, he makes up his mind to stay on at New Bedford until Monday. Soon afterwards, he spends a considerable amount of time searching for a reasonable place or inn to spend the night. After visiting several expensive looking inns, he settles upon the ‘Spouter Inn’, run by a Peter Coffin. This inn is very close to the sea and looks rather gloomy from outside.

In the following chapter, Ishmael gives a detailed description of the Inn. On entering the Spouters, Ishmael's observant eyes fall on an oil painting hanging on one side of the wall. Initially, he is unable to discern what is in the painting. However, after discussing it with the other elderly sailors, he concludes that the painting depicts a ship caught in a storm, with a huge whale leaping over the vessel. The wall that faces the painting is covered with old spears, harpoons and other strange weapons that make Ishmael shudder in fear. In one corner of the room is a bar made in the shape of a whale’s jaws.

Inside the inn, Ishmael comes upon a group of young men sitting together. Ishmael meets the owner and expresses his desire to stay the night. But he is informed that all the rooms are occupied. However, the owner adds that if he (Ishmael) does not mind sharing a bed with a harpooner, he can make the necessary arrangements. Ishmael accepts the offer reluctantly as it is at least better than wandering in a strange town, braving the ice- cold winds, in search of another inn. Consequently, Ishmael has dinner in a cold dining hall. Later, he settles down on a bench, in the bar room. Soon, a group of sailors who land at the port from a three-year voyage on the ship, the Grumpus, stamp into the inn. The sailors head straight for the bar. While most of the men are chatting, Ishmael concludes that the harpooner must be rather popular with his shipmates. This is because soon after he leaves, the others rush out calling his name - "Bulkington! Bulkington!"


After the dancing and noise comes to an end, Ishmael sits there, wondering about the identity of his companion-to-be that night. The more he ponders on the idea of sharing a bed with a stranger the more uncertain he becomes about the prospects of sharing a bed with ‘the harpooner’. He gets so worked up that he tells the owner that he would rather sleep on a bench in the bar room, than share his bed with a stranger. The owner agrees, looking rather amused, at Ishmael’s obvious fears. However, the bench that Ishmael is given to sleep on is a bit narrow as well as short for him. Moreover, the cold wind blowing from under the windowsill and coming through the gap in the rickety door of the inn makes Ishmael change his mind. He gives in to the idea of sharing a bed and inquires about the harpooners. The amused owner informs Ishmael that the harpooner normally goes to bed early. But that night, he is out selling (human) heads and perhaps that is what is keeping him away.

Ishmael is both shocked and annoyed at the owner’s weird story about human heads. He demands an explanation. The owner tells Ishmael that the harpooner has just returned from a voyage to New Zealand. Having bought a few embalmed heads from there, he has gone to sell them in the market (native Indian heads from New Zealand) - i.e. embalmed ones used to fetch a good price in the American market then). Ishmael, who is quite nervous at the strange business of the harpooner, asks the owner if the mysterious head ‘peddler’ (seller) is dangerous. The owner, however brushes his fears aside and advises him to go, since it is almost twelve o’ clock.

The owner leads Ishmael into a stone-cold bedroom. In the candlelight, Ishmael can see a bed, a center table and shelf in the sparsely furnished room. He also sees the harpooner's belongings, a long harpoon, a trunk, a large bag and a hammock. On the shelf above the fireplace, there is a parcel of weird looking bonefish hooks. Besides, Ishmael also notices something that looks rather large, wet and heavy. After studying it closely, he concludes that they are some kind of Indian moccasins (shoes). He puts them on and goes to a mirror against the wall. Whatever he sees there, horrifies him. So he quickly removes the strange shoes, blows out the light and goes to bed.

Just when Ishmael is nodding off to sleep, the sound of heavy feet wakes him up. The door opens and the harpooner enters. As Ishmael lies there watching the tall stranger, he is stunned at the man’s face in the candlelight. It is of a black-purplish yellow color with black squares all over. The stranger stuffs his single New Zealand embalmed head into his bag. Unaware of Ishmael's presence in his room, he removes his hat and begins to undress.

Meanwhile, the truth about the stranger’s origins dawns on Ishmael and he wants to flee. For the stranger is a ‘Cannibal’ from New Zealand. Terrified, Ishmael watches the stranger undress. Before going to bed, the harpooner kneels down and offers prayers to a wooden idol. After that, he pulls out a pipe for a smoke. By now Ishmael is all set to leap out of the bed and run for his life. But it is too late, as the stranger puts out the candle and jumps into his bed with his pipe, right on the spot where Ishmael is. Ishmael gives out a scream. The stranger is surprised and begins to feel him in the dark. Ishmael rolls away and gets up to light the lamp. But the annoyed stranger waves his pipe in the air and asks " who - e - debel you? You no speak - e, dam - me, kill - e." Scared for his life, Ishmael yells for the innkeeper. The innkeeper comes in grinning and pacifies both of them. He then introduces the stranger as Queequeg and assures Ishmael that he is absolutely harmless.

When Queequeg very politely asks Ishmael to get into bed, Ishmael feels better. Reassured that this ‘cannibal’ is totally harmless and is indeed ‘clean, comely cannibal, Ishmael goes to sleep.

Notes

In these chapters, a prelude to Ishmael’s voyage on the Pequod, Ishmael’s search for a place to spend the night may allude to his larger mission of finding a place in the universe. In much of the insignificant detail provided in these chapters, Melville uses metaphors to explore the doubts and uncertainties that plague human existence. Thus, the description of the Spouter’s Inn becomes a metaphor for the unstable condition of man in the universe.

In his description of the Spouter’s Inn can be seen a description of a sinking ship--a foreshadowing of what is to come. The painting which is so dirty its details can barely be made out also refers to the sublimity of the ocean and the ineffable whale which inhabits such a vast, mysterious environment. Queequeg is also introduced here as being on the outside a rather fearful barbarian, but in fact his manners and attitude are impeccable. How one appears and what one is actually like is another theme that is constantly developed throughout the novel.

The meeting with Queequeg along with the narrator’s own fears and misgivings about the adventure he has set upon make for hilarious reading.

Bulkington is also referred to here as a man who sets himself off from the crowd. He will end up appearing on the Pequod and being a person who is almost too spiritual for this world.

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