Notes on Moby-Dick’s Narrative Beginnings

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Moby-Dick and The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick.

A couple of short notes on the early sections of the book — things I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten:

-“The Counterpane” features an anecdote from Ishmael’s childhood, one of the few autobiographical hints we get about our ostensible narrator (“ostensible” since Ishmael largely drops out of the narrative in the middle of the book and becomes a floating, omniscience narrator before reemerging towards the end).  I’d forgotten how perfectly told, how subtly creepy and folkloric, this little tale is: of Ishmael sent to bed early in the afternoon of the summer solstice as punishment, by his stepmother — stepmother, mind you! — and dozing off in the sunlight to find, in the darkness, “a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.”  It’s this perfect little short story; in fact, I seem to remember a similar story by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it at the moment. This chapter, if it gets mentioned at all, gets mentioned mostly as the beginning of the affectionate bond between Ishmael and Queequeg.  But the gorgeous little excerpt of Ishmael’s perfectly horrible fairy-tale upbringing in early America is the most complicated thing about it.  Why is it here?  Ishmael tells the story to compare the feeling of holding that phantom hand with the feeling of waking with Queequeg’s “pagan arm” thrown over him.  But he tells us to remove the fear from his earlier feeling to understand how he feels under Queequeg’s arm.  Now, the fear is the most important thing about that earlier sensation, isn’t it?  Melville seemed to be simply compelled to tell this (autobiographical?) story, and to connect that uncanny sensation with the juxtaposition of Ishmael and Queequeg.  It’s the quintessence of American Weird, plain and simple.

-Father Mapple’s sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel is rightly one of the most famous chapters in the book, and Howard Vincent examines it admirably.  However, he may have been a little straightforward in his treatment.  Vincent reads it as a warning, plain and simple, to hubristic Ahab.  And you certainly can read it that way.  But the sermon is also one of Melville’s closest approaches to Paradise Lost, I believe.  And like Milton’s great poem, it is profoundly ambiguous.  Just as easily as you can read it as a reproach of Ahab and foreshadowing of doom, you can read it as a defense of Ahab.  After all, doesn’t Mapple say that “Delight is to him — a far, far upward, and inward delight — who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self,” and “who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges”?  Isn’t Ahab more like the prophet Jonah should’ve been, insisting on the wrongness of the evil perpetrated upon him, than the coward Jonah was, who ran away from his duty and was swallowed for his trouble?  Is Mapple’s sermon an indictment of God, or of Ahab?

Mothers and Other Monsters

November 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Woman in White.

Reading next: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

This book really does have more than its fair share of monsters, doesn’t it?  People monstrous — grotesque might be another way of putting it (but then I couldn’t use that killer title, lifted from this Maureen McHugh collection) — in their self-interest, their willful disavowal of wrongdoing or even wrongful impulse, their superficial gentility.

Fosco is an obvious example — like Milton’s Satan, he seems something of a heroic villain until you remember the bodies he’s buried under rhetoric, charm, and rationalization (it’s more complicated with the rather defensible Satan, of course, but that’s a whole other topic) — and I’ve already talked a little about Frederick Fairlie, who is so indifferent to everything in the world but his own comfort as to be rather delightful.  But I’m thinking here of other monsters.

The monstrous mother is Mrs. Catherick.  In her discussion with Walter, and especially in the letter she sends him, Mrs. Catherick displays her absolute lack of interest in her daughter’s well being; the coldness with which she dismisses news of Anne is matched only by the warmth with which she justifies her abandonment of Anne.  It’s a magnificent portrait, this little sketch of Mrs. Catherick.  There’s her pride at being bowed to by the minister, this tiny measure of civility and her rehabilitated status in her community to be clung to at all costs.  And, especially, there’s her magnificent sign-off to Walter, which, in context, seems like the epitome of that hoary old chestnut, the banality of evil: “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”

Is it wrong to argue that Walter Hartright himself is something of a monster, too?  What brought this to mind for me was his insistence that he bore no blame for Glyde’s death.  Of course, Glyde never would have been where he was if Walter were not digging into Glyde’s past — it’s not like he bears no responsibility.  And one of the main conflicts throughout the Third Epoch is Walter’s internal struggle between the need for vengeance and the need to protect Marian and Laura.  Collins kind of bails Walter out of this conflict, in the end.  But the conflict hews awfully close to that classic noir trope of the detective as the other side of the criminal coin: capable of impulses as dark as any murderer’s.  Interesting, that this proto-detective novel already contains the DNA of hardboiled novels and The French Connection.

Dickens, Poe, Milton, Shakespeare

January 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Just a few more words about Jonas Chuzzlewit’s demise and then I’ll move on.

I neglected to mention the two paragraphs before Jonas’s nightmare in my last post: they’re fascinating, haunting, beautiful.

The fishes slumbered in the cold, bright, glistening streams and rivers, perhaps; and the birds roosted on the branches of the trees; and in their stalls and pastures beasts were quiet; and human creatures slept.  But what of that, when the solemn night was watching, when it never winked, when its darkness watched no less than its light!  The stately trees, the moon and shining stars, the softly-stirring wind, the over-shadowed lane, the broad, bright countryside, they all kept watch.  There was not a blade of growing grass or corn, but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.

And yet he slept.  Riding on among those sentinels of God, he slept, and did not change the purpose of his journey….

I love many things about this passage, but especially how it turns Jonas’s solipsism inside out.  Jonas, center of his own universe, for once is universally watched, as he sleeps.  I think this passage still puts us, somehow, in the mind of Jonas: he feels watched, he feels the night watching him, even as he sleeps, rocked by the motion of the carriage.  The world is alive with the “sentinels of God,” whose eyes he feels.  And the morning after the murder, he’s made uneasy by the mirror, into which he glances before reentering society: “His last glance at the glass had seen a tell-tale face…”  He has made the world in his own image, and now he can no longer stand it.

There’s something Satanic about Jonas, in the sense of Milton’s Satan, as this essay points out.  Although he has none of Satan’s majestic rhetoric or noble rebellion, he carries hell within himself, just as Satan does; and just like Satan, he seems to believe (at least for a while) that he can make a heaven out of that hell — but cannot, or at least does not.  Dickens does have an inclination towards Biblical syntax, cadence, and vocabulary in his weightier chapters (evident, I think, in that passage above), which reinforces this similarity for me.

And there’s some Poe in this chapter, too — or is it just coincidental, that “tell-tale” glance in the mirror?  The first number of Chuzzlewit appeared in January 1843; “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published in January 1843.  There’s this passage, as well, in Jonas’s fitful night after the murder: “…the starts with which he left his couch, and looking in the glass, imagined that his deed was broadly written in his face, and lying down and burying himself once more beneath the blankets, heard his own heart beating Murder, Murder, Murder, in the bed…”  The beating of his own hideous heart, the image of this desperate man staring at himself in the dark mirror, trying to compose his features to eliminate the stain of his guilt: very Poe!  (Not the first time they crossed paths, either: there’s a talking raven in Barnaby Rudge.)

In Chapter 51, Jonas is finally exposed.  As he realizes his fate is sealed, he begs five minutes alone — with the unspoken understanding that he means to kill himself.  But he can’t do it.  (The officer finds him standing in a corner of the dark room, staring back at him; somehow, you can see this, as Dickens quickly sketches it, and it is awful.)  ‘You’re too soon,’ Jonas whimpers.  ‘I’ve not had time.  I have not been able to do it.  I — five minutes more — two minutes more!  — Only one!’

This is the culmination of Jonas’s consuming terror of death — the end of self, the end of everything.  It also strikes a chord, for me at least, with King Lear.  That bargaining for time, for a little more time in which to agonize and not do anything: it reminds me of the frittering away of Lear’s retinue by Goneril and Regan.  “What need one?”  Lear, another great solipsist echoed by Jonas.

Of course, my synapses probably wouldn’t have made this connection were it not for how the chapter ends (and probably not at all if Lear wasn’t more or less an obsession with me).   Jonas finally works up the gumption, once in the cart on the way to prison, and swallows his poison, which smells of peaches.

They dragged him out into the dark street; but jury, judge, and hangman, could have done no more, and could do nothing now.

Dead, dead, dead.

Where Cordelia gets five consecutive nevers, Jonas warrants only this simple prose epitaph.  It makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like clucking over a waste, that “dead, dead, dead,” as opposed to the staggering agony of Lear’s grief?  It’s so matter-of-fact, that line.  But somehow containing sorrow, too; as much sorrow as Dickens could summon for a character he despised.

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