Ti of the blog Book Chatter is sponsoring a challenge/readalong to read the classic Moby Dick. On Mondays, we’ll be posting about our progress. I am listening to the unabridged audiodisks for this book, which my husband listened to and loved.
Last week I told you that there were still 40 chapters to go before Moby Dick himself would appear. For this week, we shall travel with the Pequod all the way to that penultimate moment, saving the meeting between Moby and the crew for the last post.
When we left off, Ishmael was digressing once again, this time on the legal complications of the whaling industry. He continues his digressions as the Pequod continues its circumnavigation of the globe, running into other whalers now and then. Unexpectedly, Queequeg contracts a fever, and comes “close to the very sill of the door of death.” Worrying that if he died he would be tossed into sea in his hammock (as was the usual custom) – destined as a snack for sharks – Queequeg asks if he might have a coffin built by the ship’s carpenter. He fills the coffin with his things, and even tries it out, but then decides he is not yet ready to die, and rallies. Thereafter, he uses his coffin as a sea-chest.
Ahab gets into the creative mode as well, and has the blacksmith make him a harpoon from the best steel with the sharpest barbs, in anticipation of his meeting with Moby.
But then, in the Japanese Sea, a typhoon strikes. Ahab sets a course into the gale, to look for Moby Dick. The crew wants to sail in the opposite direction! And then they see St. Elmo’s Fire [an electric glow seen on ships during storms, and considered supernatural by superstitious sailors. There are various ways St. Elmo’s Fire manifests itself]:
The crew decides it is a good sign, and Ahab decides it is the sign of the white whale. The lightning continues to strike, and even hits Ahab’s harpoon:
“As the silent harpoon burned there like a serpent’s tongue, Starbuck grasped Ahab by the arm—‘God, God is against thee, old man; forbear! t’is an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued; let me square the yards, while we may, old man, and make a fair wind of it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this.’”
Ahab took up the harpoon as if it were a torch, and turning to the frightened crew, cried:
“‘All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound. And that ye may know to what tune this heart beats; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!’ And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame.”
The typhoon finally abated after midnight, and Starbuck went down to where Ahab was sleeping to apprise him. But he stopped before the door and considered if he should kill Ahab to save himself and the rest of the crew. He wrestled with himself, and even took up a musket. But in the end, he could not do it. He put the musket back in the rack and went back upstairs.