Archive for the 'Narration and narrator' Category

Mar 05 2010

The Epilogue

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The brief and spare epilogue comes as a bit of a shock after 500+ pages of Melvillian conditioning. Ishmael doesn’t often find himself lost for words, so why is he so tightlipped about a situation that so lends itself to hyperbole? In class Professor Friedman suggested that the epilogue allows us to reframe Moby Dick as a survival account, the entire narrative is comprised of Ishmael’s varied attempts to make sense of his sole survival retrospectively, that the detachment is his description of such harrowing personal experiences as if through another lens. The novel explores every position possible to try to understand why he was the only survivor, was it fate or chance, god or science?

I think that we can lend further support for this view of the epilogue in an earlier account we have read of someone lost at sea – Pip. Ishmael was clearly not present for Pip’s lonely experience as a castaway, so we can read the detailed account of it as Ishmael projecting his own time spent alone at sea onto Pip, and in this way trying to explain it to himself.

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, throu. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes…He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad” (172)

Pip glimpses the eternal, God, and the infinitude of his own soul – he sees more than he can bare and becomes mad, or is perceived as mad. Is Ishmael then further defending himself against the possibility of his own madness? Then too, the investigation of Ahab is another delving into a personal madness, trying to make sense of it in extension. Ahab is Ishmael’s White whale, he clings to him trying to conquer Ahab’s madness by explaining it, vicariously surmounting his own. In Pip’s account we feel Ishmael’s pain, his smallness lost in the endless ocean. We come to this text-island (the epilogue) and grabbing it as a life raft are left in a like space, adrift and unsure.

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Mar 05 2010

The Spirit Spout and Ahab’s Narrative Power

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There have been many interpretations of “The Spirit-Spout,” and I’d like to offer mine.  This chapter is, in fact, an indication of the crew of The Pequod slipping into something close to delirium. Ahab has infected them all with his dream of capturing Moby Dick, and now each man dreams of the white whale.  In the icy purgatory of this chapter, a dream-like feeling slips over everyone.  Ahab’s face seems to have “two different things warring” (209). He is between his two natures: the broken man and the ungodly divine ideal man, who would strike  the sun if it insulted him–and he is in complete control of the ship’s crew, in control of their imaginations.  Ishmael is inspired like the rest, perhaps the most inspired:

And had you watched Ahab’s face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring.  While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.  On life and death this old man walked.  But though the ship so swiftly sped, and though from every eye, like arrows, the eager glances shot, yet the silvery jet was no more seen that night.  Every sailor swore he saw it once, but not a second time.

A folklore native to the ship rapidly develops around this spout–every man sees it but once.  This is further evidence of Ahab’s capture of the crew’s imagination.

I think this contains larger implications about Ahab as a man and perhaps about genius itself.  Ahab does not appear in the novel for a long time, and yet he is a strong presence before that.  He is manifested through the stories that people have told to Ishmael about him.  Peleg, Bildad, and strange Elijah all show Ishmael a picture of Ahab before we meet him.  Without these stories, Ahab would be just another crazy old man.  It is necessary for his crew to believe in him and his wild quest in order for the voyage to succeed.  I think this is the case for all storytellers who’d like us to believe in them.  So, in the end, all genius is metaphorical, and, here, Starbuck is the only skeptic.

This reminds me of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.  Iago is similar to Ahab.  He speaks in his soliloquys about “pouring his pestilence” into Othello’s ear, and he watches the Moor change throughout the play as he infects his imagination.  Iago must gain the trust of the other characters in the play if he is to have his revenge.  That trust is a belief in the story he presents them, which is a complete takeover of their imaginations.  This happens, I think, every time we read a book.  We could do with more benign artists than these men!

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Mar 05 2010

Narration in Bartleby

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What strikes me about the narration in Bartleby is Melville’s different approach in observing and analyzing insanity than in Moby Dick. In Moby Dick the shifting narrator delves into the very minds of those that are presumably insane, giving details that the reader would never have gotten had the entire novel been written completely through the eyes of Ishmael. In Bartleby, however, we are supplied with a consistent first person narrator who is trying to make sense of the curiosity that is Bartleby.

The question I found myself asking, however, is not whether Bartleby was crazy, but whether the narrator was crazy. Bartleby does not make sense as a person. He supposedly subsists on ginger nuts, and prefers not to do anything:

He lives, then, on ginger-nuts, thought I; never eats a dinner, properly speaking; he must be a vegetarian then; but no; he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but ginger-nuts.

Take note of the use of punctuation. Read aloud this passage sounds choppy and, frankly, like a rant. The narrator is incredulous of this man, as is the reader. But does he ever question Bartleby’s very existance? This is another curious difference from Moby Dick. There is never a point during the novel where I wonder whether a character is real or an apparition. I believe that Melville uses this uncertainty to disrupt the concept of insanity itself. Who is to say who is insane? Is it just as curious to Bartleby (if Bartleby is real) that this man is so concerned with reading over a copy, or that he eats a “regular” diet? Perhaps Melville’s point is to say that the line between sanity and insanity is thin at best, and that what is socially considered “insane” may perhaps be a higher level of consciousness that is, infact, more sane than any “sane” person could be.

This  brings to mind Pip’s descent to insanity. Melville describes Pip as almost entering another realm of existance:

He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. 402

I believe this to be the essential question of Bartleby, especially since Ginger Nut refers to Bartleby as “a little bit luny”. Whether Bartleby or the narrator is crazy, Melvilles narration effectively makes the reader question the nature of sanity.

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Mar 05 2010

Finally, a reliable narrator

Besides having a completely different subject, I found that Bartleby the Scrivener also differed from Moby Dick in its narration style.  Ishmael is very present at the beginning of Moby Dick, but his voice becomes increasingly disembodied as the novel continues.  The unnamed lawyer narrator remains present throughout Bartleby, and readers follow him through all his various interactions with other characters.

Ishmael does not interact much with other characters after he arrives on the Pequod.  While his voice continues to inform the reader of what is happening on the ship, we rarely get an actual glimpse of him.  He appears briefly in such chapters as The Monkey-Rope and A Squeeze of the Hand.  Yet he still does not enter into dialogue with anyone aboard the ship.  The most dialogue that Ishmael engages in during the part of the book that he is on the ship happens when he is having a flash forward to later describing the Town-Ho’s story to friends in Lima.  Ishmael as a body aboard the ship seems to disappear from the story entirely until the Epilogue.  He does not even alert the reader that he was one of the men on Ahab’s boat until after the ship has sunk.

The narrator of Bartleby has conversations with numerous other people in the text, and often uses the pronoun “I” to describe his personal thoughts and feelings.  His constant flow of opinions and theories regarding Bartleby’s condition contrasts sharply with the reader’s lack of insight into Bartleby’s mind.

I enjoyed reading a piece by Melville where the narrator remained consistent for the duration of the plot.  The narrator was as reliable as Bartleby was unreliable as an employee.

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Mar 05 2010

Bartleby and his persistant resistance

In class we discussed the idea of reading Bartleby the Scrivener as a story of resisting societal expectations. I found this a very useful and logical way of approaching the bizarre fantom-like character of Bartleby. For instance, early in the his presence in the tale we see the following set up:

I should have stated before that ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my scriveners, the other by myself…I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them…I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined.

This description places Bartleby as physically unseparated from the narrator in stark contrast to the intentional separation that exists between them and the other three men in the office. Many times the narrator looks to these men for their consensus and support on his outrage with Bartleby and all three regardless of their seemingly different characters give the same response. They seem to represent the majority which we use to justify our own “reasonable” opinions. Bartleby’s resistance is so peculiar because it is so very pure in its form. Unlike our “irrational” anger or “childish” refusal to do what is asked of us, Bartleby’s demeaner is steady, calm, mature, and he does not (or cannot) waiver from his particular cause. We see this is the following exchange:

“I would prefer not to.” (Bartleby)

“You will not?” (narrator)

“I prefer not.” (Bartleby)

Even while the resistance is enough to rid Bartleby of completing each task, he is careful to correct the idea that he is stubborn refusal. No, he is resistance. Interestingly, the narrator eventually grows to appreciate this idea/person even while he never seems any less irritated by it.

I looked round anxiously, peeped behind his screen; but it was very plain that he was gone…For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me.

Without questioning society, even if it is a dangerous or perhaps simply irksome internal struggle, our lives and purpose become depressingly dull.

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Mar 05 2010

“I would prefer not to”: the fate of those in America who lack ambition

Bartleby, the Scrivener is definitely one of Melville’s funny short stories, though far from benevolent it has a pretty dark ending. In class it was mentioned that Bartleby is not the typical worker: he is not industrious, he has no ambition, and he may be crazy. However, I would say that the narrator is not the typical boss either: though he talks about money at the beginning, just as Bartleby shows ambition at the beginning, his dealings with Bartleby and the fact that he has a half-effectual staff show that he does not really care about making money. I think Melville thought this would be a funny situation, to take Wall Street and what is at the heart of American values and invert it.

Bartleby’s “preferences” gradually decline until he seems to prefer not to do anything. This could be a commentary on the American system, especially since Bartleby used to work at the government bureau of dead-end letters which the narrator supposes is partially responsible for his apathy. However, I think Melville as a satirist had more in mind. Perhaps, he saw at the heart of the American system is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that the pursuit of life and happiness is what runs the country. Anyone can succeed in America so long as they have a great work ethic and ambition. What happens when someone has no ambition? What happens when one would prefer not to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as Bartleby seems to do, when he chooses to do nothing, get arrested, and die? In other words, what place does madness have in American life, that part of us “that would prefer not to?” Bartleby is almost like that part of our consciousness, or perhaps the narrators, that is stubborn and unsatisfied.

The motto of a free, industrious country is “I would prefer to…”, a positive pursuit of values. Though that also comes with the freedom “to prefer not to,” Bartleby is just concerned with the negative. He never really says what he would prefer to do, thus going into a state of self-resignation and shock. The narrator, who represents the American system, does not know how to respond to this Bartleby and can not accommodate him; no one can. Thus people like Bartleby do not have a place in American life or society. Melville could just be playing around, satirizing readers who did not have the stomach for Moby-Dick (Bartleby does not even want to read over his own proofs), or trying to get us to be more acceptable of our our reluctant consciences by satirizing and dramatizing the conflict, i.e. it’s never as bad as Bartleby. What makes Bartleby funny, endearing, and relatable is that there’s a part of him in all of us, whether we’d prefer this or not.

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Mar 05 2010

Toilers of the Sea

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, “the Great American Novel,” has been compared to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables , which may be “the great French novel, “ for its similar number of meditative digressions.  (Porter vii).  His digressions also function similarly to those in Moby-Dick, alluding to what “narratologists” call “events” (acts of God) rather than to “acts” (purposeful human actions) (28).

However, I think it would be more interesting to compare Moby-Dick to Hugo’s not much later novel Toilers of the Sea, a once obscure novel to an even more obscure novel.

Just as The Pequod crosses pathes with the French ship The Rosebud (Bouton-de-Rose), these two great novels cross paths.

Toilers of the Sea has been viewed as a regional novel (77) but that is like saying Moby-Dick is a book about cetology!  It takes place on the island of Guernsey where the people live off of and toil with the sea.  Though perhaps the more correct word is ‘battle’: they are constantly exposed to the elements, the storms and the unbridled sea.  The crew of the Pequod, as well as many sailors of the 19th century, Melville included, would not have been unfamiliar with the island.  The first mate of The Rosebud, who humorously translates Stubb’s words to his captain, also happens to be a Guernsey-man.

Both books have prophetic beginnings: Moby-Dick opens with Ishmael saying “Call me Ishmael.”  Toilers of the Sea opens up with a mysterious girl Deruchette writing “Gilliat,” the main character’s name, in the snow.

Deruchette’s father, Lethierry, has established the first steamboat service in the region, the La Durande.  His captain, Sieur Clubin (Ahab), who has long prided himself on his honesty, awaits an opportunity to defraud his boss and run off with the money.  After a fortune is stolen from Lethierry, he tracks down the money only to trick his alcoholic helmsman (Flask) into crashing the ship on a treacherous reef.

Hiding in the rocks he plans to swim to shore, where he will arrange a secret voyage overseas.  But, like Ahab, he is struck down by fate.  A monstrous octopus seizes and drowns him, leaving his rotting carcass to attract the crabs, which it feeds upon.

Lethierry promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who can salvage the ship’s engine.  Only Gilliat takes up the challenge, though secretly.

He struggles for weeks on the isolated reef where he constructs his own tools, battles fierce storms, and defeats the murderous octopus.  Finding the engine, the fortune and Sieur Clubin’s body, he returns to Lethierry who, ecstatic and devoutly thankful, wants Gilliat to be the captain of his new ship and have his Deruchette’s hand in marriage.

Tragically, in Gilliat’s absence, Deruchette has fallen in love with a new handsome minister who Gilliat saved earlier from drowning.  He fell asleep, contemplating the sea in “the Devil’s chair,” a stony armchair naturally carved out of the cliffs that is subsumed underwater during high tide.

Finding this out, Gilliat offers to selflessly arrange their marriage secretly, and they accept his generosity, unaware of his suffering.  As the couple sails away towards France, Gilliat sits in the stone armchair, watching them sail away until he drowns.

As you can tell there are many themes in common, including environment, nature, fate, labor, industrialization,  science and superstition, religion, race, politics, isolation, depression, and melancholy, or what psychoanalysts would call a “melancholic” attitude: turning anger at the other against the self (79).

Also, Moby-Dick is a metaphor for America in the nineteenth century, while Graham Robb has called this novel “a metaphor for the nineteenth century—technical progress, creative genius and hard work overcoming the immanent evil of the material world” (78).

And isn’t a giant octopus just as awesome as a whale? Kraken vs. Leviathan. I would like to see Moby-Dick and the octopus duke it out any day.

Porter, Laurence M.. Victor Hugo. Michigan State University. Twayne Publishers: New York, 1999.

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Mar 04 2010

Emotional Disconnect

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The end of Moby Dick…

After class, I was really intrigued with Ishmael’s emotional disconnect at the end of the novel.  Rereading quotes from the beginning and end of the novel, I was really struck by how he presented himself after this horrific experience.  At first, I believed that Melville was perhaps playing on the fact that Ishmael had post traumatic stress from the sinking of the ship and the loss of so many friends and influential people.  Or maybe Ishmael was finally attempting to be a reliable narrator.  But neither of these reasons fit Ishmael’s personality, which we have all experienced throughout the book.  Therefore, I fully believe that the last section of the book coincides with the insanity and imbalances of Ishmael that we read on the first page.  Specifically this quote:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; when I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especiallywhenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball. (1)

After these first few lines, I was really struck again by how insane and unreal Ishmael portrays himself.  An individual who has a firm or even slightly less firm grasp on reality would never present himself, in a novel concerning a life changing voyage, as insane.  It is as though he is warning his audience that he unreliable before we even get to the second page.  Furthermore, to say that he becomes reliable at the end of the novel because of his emotional disconnect as seen in the following passage, it completely ridiculous:

Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last.  It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. (552)

If anything, the emotional disconnect that Ishmael displays just shows how bizarre and unstable he is.  For all of his previous comments that seemed to say that he was “married” to Queequeq and could not fathom the thought of living without him, there is no mention of Queequeq’s die.  There is not mention of anyone else, his only comment is that he is the only one that survived.  In my mind, that displays the type of individual who is narrating the story.  It displays that Ishmael is not reliable, never was reliable and even warned us that he was unreliable.

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Mar 03 2010

Ishmael Returns

Why does the Epilogue seem so strange and out of place? In class, we discussed Ishmael possibly distancing himself emotionally from the tragedy that took the lives of his only companions as an explanation for his dead pan description of how he alone survived. Void of the rich, nearly superfluous amount of detail and intellectual insight we have grown so accustomed to in Melville’s narration, the epilogue seems barren and impersonal in comparison.

On the first day of class we discussed how Moby Dick can be compared to a symphony, or a jazz piece. The Novel contains several movements, and following that line of thought, the Epilogue can be likened to calm music that frequently follows the climax of a musical piece. Frequently this final movement evokes the very beginning of the piece, except with a slightly different spin. In terms of narration, I believe that the epilogue is quite like the opening chapters of the book in the sense that these are the only two parts of the book where Ishmael is truly alone. Melville’s mutable narrator is heavily influenced by the cast of characters he is surrounded with. Ahab, Starbuck, and Queequeg are all examples of this, and as such, it is always difficult to discern whats true and what isn’t.

One could read the ever changing narrator as an omniscient presence, shifting from one conscious to the other. For the sake of my argument, however, it helps to look at these shifts instead as Ishmael’s speculations and insights into the characters he is surrounded by. The Epilogue reminds us that Ishmael is writing this account retrospectively, and as such, the means must justify the ends. Perhaps this is why Ahab’s sanity is clearly questioned since the beginning. Perhaps the fact that Queequeg’s coffin saved Ishmael in the end colored his entire perception of the man. Because of this, Ishmael’s narrative embodies the presumed thoughts and feelings of these characters, which have become perverted and polarized in his mind.

With this in mind, the only times that we really know Ishmael the narrator are the very beginning, and the very end of the novel. Because Ishmael so frequently drifts away from his own thoughts and consciousness, it hints that Ishmael himself is not, or does not consider himself to be, the most important figure in the novel. This explains the brief, and lack luster nature of the epilogue. It also explains the unreliability of Ishmael, as his presence imposes little consequence on the sequence of events, or the messages means to relay to the reader.  This again brings me back to the first day of discussion as we considered the opening lines of the book: “Call me Ishmael”. Perhaps what Melville meant by that was that it doesn’t matter who the narrator is, or what he is called. Ishmael merely reflects and analyzes those around him, he was merely burdened with the tale to tell. The tale itself being far more important than the man who chanced to survive it:

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. -Job

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Mar 01 2010

Style and Spirit: Narrating The Spirit-Spout

I would like to analyze the chapter The Spirit-Spout through style and narration, the structure which houses “the spirit.” This is one of my favorite chapters of the novel, and I think this chapter shows how great of a lyricist and poet Melville can be. Because of its natural fluidity as opposed to Ishmael’s usual choppiness of style, I think this was one of the easiest chapters for Melville to write and therefore more revealing.

You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book — and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.

Melville wrote these words in a famous letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne on November 15, 1851, parts of which we discussed during our Gender and Madness lecture. What is the soul, the spirit of Moby-Dick? Could it be the same depicted in the Spirit-Spout, the chapter that Hawthorne’s wife admired so much?

There are many elements of style that Melville uses in this chapter to achieve his effect. In the title and the first few paragraphs he uses an usual form of alliteration known as sibilance, or repetition with the letter ‘s.’

…one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. (224)

This form has a very classical feel. Today, it almost seems archaic or dream-like. Though the term “sibilance” originated in 1823, the term sibilant, meaning “having, containing, or producing the sound of or a sound resembling that of the s or the sh in sash,” came into English in 1669 from the Latin sibilare, to hiss, whistle, of imaginative origin (Merriam-Webster). Whether classic or pseudo-classic, by using repetition, and this unusual manifestation of it, Melville creates a deliberately unreal atmosphere with a spark of the sublime. Such metaphors as “the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver” makes one think of Biblical scrolls or ancient knowledge, also adding to the classical and mystical feel.

There is also something strange about the way the silvery jet is introduced. The first time, the action of the jet “rising” is not given until two clauses afterwards, and then only in an indirect way, through metaphor.

…on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. (224)

By placing the verb later on Melville gives the impression that the spout is static, that it has always been there, almost like the  men of the Pequod have come across a fixed glistening rod jutting out of the sea. It doesn’t disappear until the end of the next paragraph, and even then he doesn’t describe it descending. He just says “yet the silvery jet was no more seen that night.” By leaving out action, Melville gives the illusion of apparition. Most of Melville’s symbolism lies in his style.

…some days after, lo! at the same silent hour, it was again announced: again it was descried by all; but upon making sail to overtake it, once more it disappeared as if it had never been. (225)

By appearing and disappearing, it is both eternal and ephemeral. By repetition, coming every night at the same hour, Melville gives the impression of a consciousness, a purposeful intelligence, an order.

Mysteriously jetted into the clear moonlight, or starlight, as the case might be. (225)

Here, Melville gives the action right away: it is jetted; but even so, it is done mysteriously, as if there was no cause or originator of the action.

Another trick Melville likes to use is sharp, strong contrasts of which these are just some:

“…his [Fedallah’s] turban and the moon, companions in one sky.” (225)

“…she [the Pequod] rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling in her–one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal.” (225)

“While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked.” (225)

“Even when wearied nature seemed demanding repose he [Ahab] would not seek that respose in his hammock.” (227)

These contrasts make us more aware of our reality and the constant alternative. By putting Fedallah’s turban in the same frame as the moon, Melville simply, but powerfully conjures up humanity and eternity, or as Mary Warnock puts it in her book of the same title, imagination and time. By stripping the scene down to its bare essentials, it makes us more aware, even while it seems less real. It also makes us feel more alone with our humanity, like the men at sea.

(In the blog post Phantom Ship, Josana takes a look at the symbolism of the sea-ravens in which she also notices that “second sentence seems to suggest that the Pequod hangs on the balance of life and death.”)

Who or what is the Spirit-Spout supposed to be? I think that is exactly what Melville wants us to wonder. While this may seem like a dream or loll in the text compared to the storm developing in the reader’s mind–Melville, “still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.”

And sometimes one can recognize the spirit through the form. In a book perhaps mangled and imperfect, while the birds weigh down on Ahab’s ship, Melville’s thoughts take flight.

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