Friday, January 11, 2013

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 48-56

Chapters 48-56 of Moby-Dick bring Ahab and his crew ever closer to the infamous white whale and their fate.  In Chapter 48 ("The First Lowering"), as excellently ready by Tome Browne, the reader and the crew get their first taste of whaling under Captain Ahab's leadership.  This is also the crew's first look at Ahab's personal boat crew which, although a few have for a while suspected there were extra hands aboard the whaler, he has kept hidden away from the rest of the crew until now  Now, in the heat of the chase, Fedallah and his men have a chance to display their skills to their shipmates.

In an aside to the chapter, George Cotkin, author of Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick, remarks on the lukewarm reception the novel received upon publication, a reaction that greatly disappointed Melville.  Cotkin closes this chapter of his own book this way: "Alas, Moby-Dick quickly faded from the attention of the public.  But it would resurface, in time, in time."  Much as Moby-Dick and his fellow sperm whales will be doing, one suspects.

Chapter 49 ("The Hyena") is one in which Ishmael finally realizes just how dangerous a venture he has embarked upon, so dangerous a sailing, in fact, that he and many of the other sailers become obsessed with getting their wills in order in case they do not survive the voyage.  As Ishmael observes, "It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion."

Chapter 51 ("The Spirit Spout") is a rather haunting, and strikingly beautiful one, that recounts the sighting of a sperm whale by the light of the moon.  Although this caused great excitement among the crew the first time it happened, it would finally become so commonplace that the crew hardly bothered to remark upon it.

Ahab's great single-mindedness is illustrated in Chapter 52 ("The Albatross") when the Pequod encounters another whaling vessel.  All Ahab cares to learn from the strangers is whether or not they have encountered Moby-Dick recently.  No potential exchange of news, newspapers, or letters ever crosses the Captain's mind.  This is further reinforced in the next chapter ("The Gam") in which Ishmael explains what normally happens when two or three whaling ships, by chance, find themselves within hailing distance of each other.  Ahab has only one thing on his mind - and it is not seeing to the niceties demanded by the "social" occasion.

Chapter 51 Illustration by Desmond Morris
Chapter 54 ("The Town-Ho's Story" - no, not that kind of "town-ho") is a rather strange one in which we watch Ishmael tell a long story to avid listeners in Lima of a mutiny he once witnessed.  This scene, rather jarringly, takes place some years later than what Ishmael is now experiencing on the open seas with Captain Ahab and is Melville's first hint that our narrator will survive whatever is to happen between the whale and the captain.

Chapters 55 and 56 are two more of Melville's "educational" ones in which he strives to make the average landlubber understand the magnitude of what a whaling crew goes through in order to bring home the all-important sperm oil.  In these chapters Ishmael points out that most illustrations of whales familiar to readers of the day are misleading, if not comletely ludicrous.

Favorite reader of this section of the book: Helen Rayner.  I am, perhaps mistakenly, assuming that this is the Helen Rayner who writes for television and stage productions in the U.K.  Ms. Rayner's chapter is read clearly and precisely - and at just the right pace to keep her listeners turning the pages with her.

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