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Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Moby Dick Monday: Chapter 3

(Late Tuesday Edition)

The Spouter Inn

Most chapters of this book are quite short and seem kind of unworthy of the being rightfully called a chapter. Not 3. It goes on and on, in the manner of a proper chapter and even takes place across multiple scenes. We start inside the hotel with a discussion about a painting hanging in the entry. In the first sentence, the entrance's wood work "remind[s] one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft." Just to keep up the cheerful mood.

The discussion of the painting is funny and drags on at great length. Due to poor lighting and smoke stains, it's difficult to make out and so Melville discusses several theories as to what it might depict. Finally deciding that, it "represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-floundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads." A painting worthy of a Monty Python animation. Dark and full of doom but completely ludicrous.

The rest of the decoration at the inn is briefly discussed, all of it exceedingly non-cozy, most of it whale-killing weaponry. Then he describes how the main room resembled the inside of a troubled ship. And then, with an astonishing lack of subtlety, the barkeep is named Jonah - this also being the name of an Old Testament figure who was swallowed by a whale.

Having established this as the most alarming hotel ever, prior to the establishment of the Bates, a dramatic situation is introduced: there are no free beds. He will have to share with a harpooner. Although the introduction and the painting stuff is typically wordy, half of the reason for the exceptional length for this chapter is describing how much he doesn't want to sleep with the harpooner. Ishmael won't leap into bed with just anybody. Also, lest you think he's too easy, he tells us, "I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did." Yes, indeed, very butch, I'm sure.

The harpooner is much speculated upon before he appears. And Ishmael comes up with some schemes to avoid sleeping with him. He planes down a bench in the frigid dining room, to sleep on it, but this turns out to be a bad idea. So he pushes the landlord for information and gets only surreal replies. "I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be he can't sell his head." I wonder to myself, what would I make of such news. Would I become frustrated and angry like Ishmael and decide the harpooner must be insane? Or would I, more likely, decide the landlord was nuts? Or would I make silly jokes about the subtext of the harpooner selling of himself? tee-hee. ... Something about this exchange makes me think of Holland, for no good reason I can place. The only time I've had a hotel owner who seemed so insane was in Belgium and if I ever run into one like that again, I'm just going to leave.

So this mysterious harpooner is actually selling shrunken heads on the street. This news doesn't fully mollify Ishmael. The landlord notes that it's a very nice bed and that he and his wife slept in it on their wedding night. There's a lot of fluff in this novel and not every phrase is necessarily going someplace. But we've talked about this harpooner so much as this point, he's got to turn out to be important. And this news about the landlord having used the bed with his wife is probably intended to convey some sort of foreshadowing. Given that they used the bed on their wedding night, I think it's fair to assume a sexual innuendo. Or maybe it's just supposed to symbolize the beginning of a relationship.

Ishmael gets let into the room before the harpooner comes in and promptly begins snooping in all of the other guy's stuff, going so far as to try on some of his clothes. Then he goes to bed alone, with some thought that the other guy might not be back that night. But he does. Ishmael silently watches the other guy undress and whatnot, in a scene lasting several pages. Most of these pages are talking about how weird the other guy looks and how frightened Ishamel is. The harpooner is a cannibal and this very alarming. Finally the guy gets into bed and is surprised and alarmed to find somebody else already in it and scuffle ensues. The landlord arrives and explains the situation. Both parties are happy and Ishamel sleeps well.

All of the above drags on and on across several pages. It's amusing and sets a mood. Of waiting and expectation and finally of revealing. Ishamel is fascinated watching the other guy get ready for bed, as he lies in bed waiting. This fearfully witnessed uncovering all takes place in what's been established as a bridal bed. Although Ishamel is constantly horrified by the strange appearance of the alien other, there's some undertone constantly, of the very intimate nature of their situation. In another era, if one of them were a woman, this would be a scene from a love story. This implicitly has that kind of vibe.

"Cannibal" in this context, means a non-Christian from any tropical region, as far as I can tell. The guy is selling shrunken heads and he's got tattoos and is of another race and religion, so therefore, he's a cannibal. I don't know if that means he must also eat people or not. Anyway, Ishamel is ready to accept him, "he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal." 'Comely' tends to mean attractive as in 'hott,' so again with the homoeroticness.

Recall further the ashes of Gemorrah, kicked aloft in the previous chapter. I think perhaps it was love that was in the air.

1 comment:

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