Melville, thou reasonest well.

In chapter two of Moby Dick, Ishmael stands before the Spouter Inn for the first time:

  It was a queer sort of place—a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. “In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon,” says an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant—“it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.” True enough, thought I, as this passage occurred to my mind—old black-letter, thou reasonest well. Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper—(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.

  But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here? Would he not far rather lay him down lengthwise along the line of the equator; yea, ye gods! go down to the fiery pit itself, in order to keep out this frost?

  Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

  But no more of this blubbering now, we are going a-whaling, and there is plenty of that yet to come. Let us scrape the ice from our frosted feet, and see what sort of a place this “Spouter” may be.

(A few glosses: the Paul whose craft was tossed was the Apostle; the “old writer”, we assume, is Melville himself; “Dives” (2 syllables) is a personified rich man; the story of “Lazarus and the Rich Man” is from Luke Chapter 16, where down-and-out Lazarus begs for a crumb from a rich man, and is refused; and Dives’s even-redder cloak that he later wears is of course the fires of Hell. The meaning of the extract is that the rich man and the poor look alike on the crisp stars of a winter night, but they see very different things: the rich man sees incredible beauty, but the poor man just wishes for daylight and the warmth of the sun.)

Now, there’s a million things to say about even this tiny extract: its humour (for example, the punning of “blubbering” and “blubber” and the general sense of gentle exaggeration); its awe (“the universe is [complete] … a million years ago”); its rhetorical flourishes (“… making my own summer with coals”, “warming his hands by the northern lights”); its satire (“he drinks the tepid tears of orphans”); its learning (“Paul… Euroclydon… Dives and Lazarus”); its profundity (“it maketh a marvellous difference…”); its righteous anger (Lazurus would “go down to the fiery pit itself” for warmth); even the roundness of these two throwaway characters (Dives can’t have more than 50 words, but Melville still makes him an abstainer, a hypocrite, and somehow lonely and unhappy in his “palace made of frozen sighs”). Yet perhaps the most marvellous thing about this extract is that it is not particularly exceptional; I could have picked any one of five hundred similar sized blocks from the book and praised it as much. Truly, for Melville, the ordinary burns.

But it’s the last two-sentence paragraph that hooks it all together for me. Here’s what happens in this whole extract. Ishmael is cold and tired and can’t afford any of the inns he’s passed so far. He sees the Spouter Inn, and, despite the bad omen of the proprietor’s name (“Peter Coffin”), stands back to look at it. He starts to describe it, but immediately becomes aware that the wind he’s standing in wouldn’t be so cold if he went in. That reminds him of the quote from old black-letter. That in turn makes him think of the imperfection of the universe – God created the human body on the analogy of the house, but neglected to weather-proof it. From this, Ishmael decides that since there was nothing he could do about that, he had to accept his imperfections (note that he doesn’t argue that God must have had His reasons, but that the matter was settled and too late to change now – an interesting theology!). Therefore the poor man Lazarus has to put up with his lot. That naturally leads to Ishmael digressing from his digression to the parable from Luke, and then he compares how the world-views of Dives and Lazarus are shaped by their own circumstances, bringing us back to old black-letter’s quote. Finally, Melville brings it all together with “that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas.” (=Islands in Indonesia). At that, Ishmael goes into the inn, and we never do get to hear much about what the Inn looked like.

That’s already a lot of work for so few words, and it works because Melville is illustrating Ishmael’s fundamental trait: he’s a wanderer. In opposition to Ahab – who only has one subject – Ishmael can’t keep on a single thought for the time it takes to look at a building. Instead, he’s off, metaphysicking and speculating. Ismael’s mode of comedy is straight-faced exaggeration – which is apt for a fisherman in the ultimate one-that-got-away tale – and it works very well (in the next chapter, he claims that Nantucket is so hostile, even the weeds have to be planted). He’s a thinker, and a dreamer, and a bit of a clown; he acts indignant when he’s laughed at, but secretly he quite likes it. This is all a tremendously complicated message, and the reason Melville can pull it off is because Ishmael’s character and the book’s style are interwoven. I’m not a fan of first person narrations – I think that in general they’re cheap gimmicks – but they are justified where the narrator has such a distinctive voice.


WikiP on Moby Dick: a pretty good summary, all in all.

An artistic representation of the voyage: 

MD at Gutenberg. God, I love the internet. 

An online annotated version – take it with a pinch of salt, although it is a useful starting point.


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