Archive for the 'Characters and characterization' Category

Mar 05 2010

Ishmael in the Epilogue

The Epilogue of Moby Dick is somewhat of a letdown.  After the epic drama of the whale chase, we are left with a narrator floating in a calm sea for two days.  This may seem like an odd way to end this novel, a throwaway page, and in some ways it is.  However, I think it is fitting.  Ishmael has been an odd, detached, and often invisible narrator for much of this novel.  His stories are interesting because of the people in the, and because of his philosophical musings based on these events.  However, at this point, there are no other characters left.  Everything has been destroyed, and he is too tired to muse.

Ishmael does not seem to find himself, alone, important enough to ponder.  He says “The drama’s done.  Why then here does any one step forth?  – Because one did survive the wreck.”  He makes it clear that the interesting part is over.  Furthermore, he does not even say that he is the one who survived, merely that “one” did.  Ishmael seems lost without others around.  This is a symptom of the invisible narrator who, as I previously discussed, very rarely focuses on himself.  Without any one else around, he is at a loss.  And that brings about the very sad, lonely, and sparse end of this intense and overpopulated novel.

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Mar 05 2010

Outlets at Sea

It seems everyone on the Pequod has some type of outlet, some means or object of self-medication, dissociation, or meditation at sea. For Ishmael it is simply going to sea–his substitute for pistol and ball. For Queequeg, it is his little black idol. For Subb, of course, his pipe, and Flask, his drink.

But what about Ahab? What is his outlet for driving away the spleen? I don’t believe he has one, and I think that is precisely one reason he is wound up the way he is. Almost any man on the ship would go nuts without some kind of reprieve or belief or something to take the edge off of one’s depression or boredom or pondering. But Ahab does not appear to have or seek any means of doing so, and therefore is stark mad and thoroughly agitated.

Or perhaps as a result of his madness, his spitefulness, or his monomania, he has cast aside all of his outlets and diversions. He abandoned his family, cast away his pipe, cast away anything that got in between him and the target of his revenge that goes beyond revenge.

One might say that Moby Dick is his outlet. And perhaps it is in some backwards fashion. Instead of praying and worshiping a deity Ahab only condemns his foe. Instead of writing letters home, he writes out his plans for the death of the white whale.

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Mar 05 2010

Passivity in Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the scrivener’s case is an interesting one. Devoid of information concerning his past, except for the brief ‘rumor’ offered in the epilogue (which truthfully, seems superfluous) we must take him at face value. It is arguable, although ultimately unimportant, whether Bartleby’s politely disagreeable behavior is firmly in place for the discovery by the narrator, or whether the narrator’s own admissions of Bartleby’s responses gives him permission to expand his behavior. What their relationship becomes is the opposite of what it seems- it appears that Bartleby is the one who refuses to do anything, removing himself from life, while the lawyer, filled with conviction, struggles for a way to help him. However, it is Bartleby who has convictions, and the lawyer who ends up a passive participant in his own life. Part of the narrator’s passivity comes from a good place- he, unlike the other characters with agency in the short story, feels compassion for Bartleby, and maybe admiration for Bartleby’s assured attitude. He relies on the “divine injunction: ‘A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.’ Yes, this it was that saved me…charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle” (9). He makes the effort to accommodate Bartleby, and it seems less because he feels like he has no choice but because he finds Bartleby curious and assured.

However, social pressure confounds their relationship, stripping the narrator of his passivity as two pressures, filled with conviction, force him to make a decision. What finally gets to the narrator is the realization that Bartleby’s presence and his own acquiescence is “scandalizing my professional reputation” (10). Bartleby’s conviction, so at odds with the pressurized nature of social convention, disturbs those who have the power to disrupt the narrator’s attempt at charity: “At last I was made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature I kept in my office. This worried me very much.” (10). Lacking the same charitable character of the narrator, but possessing a different (and more pathetic) sort of passivity, the new owners of Bartleby’s building force him out.

Bartleby’s end begs the question of what could have been had social pressures not influenced the narrator towards complete avoidance of Bartleby. It seems that social pressure, not Bartleby, really pushed the narrator away. His actions are symptoms of his passive nature; even if he feels he is doing something right, if others do not agree with him he is wont to create no disruptions, no rifts in his life. I think he could imagine himself as Bartleby in another life.

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Mar 05 2010

What is Ishmael still doing alive?

“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck” (509).

Ishmael remains alive at the end of the wreck, presumably the only means through which this text is produced. As everyone else is killed on way or another by Moby Dick, Ishmael is “dropped astern,” where he spends the rest of the battle “floating on the margin of the ensuing scene” but, of course, “in full sight of it” (509). This last picture, Ishmael sort of passively experiencing everything that happens on the ship, is a good manner in which to examine the novel. Ishmael’s rational for whaling is not that of Ahab’s, who finds an even more compelling reason to continue his life’s obsession, or any of the mates, also whaling lifers, or that of the harpooneers; he goes as a “substitute for the pistol and ball” (1). He ruminates on his own melancholic existence while aboard the boat, and it seems like he probably spends a lot of time alone. However, sine this novel is his ‘story,’ he must be privy to situations and conversations in which he does not take part and for which he cannot seem to be in the same place. I get this sense of Ishmael sort of lurking around, a non-offensive type with whom the other men on the ship are unconcerned about him overhearing what they say. However, Ishmael senses a story building beyond the usual whaling enterprise, and a set of complex characters whose fate centers on the decisions of a brutal antagonist. Ishmael seems to have very few direct conversations with any of his superiors, yet his knowledge of them seems based on having spent much personal time with them. He neglects to mention the names of almost anyone else aboard- all we have is Ahab, the mates, the harpooneers, the mysterious Fedallah, Pip, and a random name dropped here and there; this seems odd in such a long narrative in which these other men are constantly present. It is almost as if Ishmael senses who will be the key players in the story, and in the interest of producing a more gripping narrative, he gives the men on the ship a treatment not even close to the minutely descriptive one he gives the whale. As the story progresses, Ishmael is relatively mute on his feelings about chasing Moby Dick, instead locating the Ahab-Starbuck conflict drama play out without trying to influence the reader too much. He wants them to find Moby Dick, for the sake of the story.

I was reading a comment in which someone said they would like to see Johnny Depp as Ishmael in an imagined film version, the only concern being that his dynamism would steal the screen. I agree- Ishmael would need to better be able to disappear into the background, as he does so often in the novel. He certainly spends all of his time thinking, and whether or not he does the research for the more ‘informational’ portions of his narrative on the ship or after reaching shore, we get the sense that he is eternally plotting how this work will look- he certainly is smart enough to know that this chase will end in disaster, and has made himself passive enough to escape the literal need for his death.

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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

The Beginning of the End of the Pequod

Ahab’s maniacal obsessive mind finally takes full control in the chapter The Quadrant.  This instrument is used to measure the position of the sun in order to determine a ship’s latitude.  Ahab decides that it is useless on his quest to find Moby Dick, exclaiming

Foolish toy! Babies’ plaything of haughty admirals, and commodores, and captains…Science! Curse thee thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that casts man’s eyes aloft to that heaven…Curse thee thou quadrant!  No longer will I guide my earthly way by thee…thus I split and destroy thee!” (481)

Ahab proceeds to crush the quadrant by stepping on it with both his foot and peg-leg.  This dramatic display of the destruction of this tool signifies the disintegration of Ahab’s sanity and the loss a sense of reality.  By ruining the Pequod’s navigation instrument, Ahab is left in complete control of the ship’s course and direction.  No sound, stable tool can help guide the ship in a reasonable manner.  The sailors are left to depend on the fallible mind of their captain, an almost definite sign that the ship will be wrecked and end in doom.  By crushing the very tool that can provide a practical mapping for the Pequod to follow a logical course, Ahab exerts himself and his authority over science and in a broader sense, destiny and the larger external forces that affect human lives.  Again, this bold gesture serves as an omen that hints of Ahab’s destruction by a man-made object (the harpoon line) that has yet to occur.  It also implies the Pequod’s downfall, as all the sailors can do is to follow their insane Captain on his brazen quest to seek revenge upon an angry whale.  Breaking the quadrant in a way removes any hope the men, especially Starbuck, might have of ending their journey and finding their way safely back home.

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Mar 04 2010

How to survive in Melville’s World

Melville seems to end his stories on a somber note.  Moby Dick, Bartleby the Scrivener, and Benito Cereno all have some people die and some survive in their final moments.  Let us examine Ishmael, the lawyer, and Delano – three survivors.

In Moby Dick, largely due to Ahab’s leadership, everyone but Ishmael perishes by the white whale.  Ishmael is this self-taught Renaissance man who seems to know a bit about everything.  He is not particularly integral to the Pequod’s crew and is more a tool for Melville to narrate and muse.  We learn at the beginning that Ishmael goes to sea because he’s depressed and feels alienated from society.

The lawyer in Bartleby the Scrivener is vain and a bit conceited, but definitely generous.  He keeps defective staff members on his payroll and doesn’t fire Bartleby when he stops working.  He tries to understand Bartleby and why he stops doing his job, but to no avail.  Nonetheless, he retains his interest in the enigmatic scrivener and narrates his story to preserve his odd legacy.

Captain Delano seems like a moderately intelligent and contemplative, yet somewhat naive captain.  We note that he realizes something is amiss and sometimes this distracts him, but he always brushes these troubling thoughts away.  Had Delano been more suspicious, he probably would have given some kind of indication of his suspicion and been killed by Babo, along with Cereno.  I can see the lawyer in Bartleby the Scrivener, a moderately intelligent but strangely detached from reality kind of person, doing the same thing.  Bartleby, like Cereno, acts strangely and confuses the lawyer, who doesn’t immediately fire Bartleby but rather remains contemplative and never assumes the worst.

In class we discussed this almost endearing ignorance found especially in Delano and to an extent, the lawyer as a distinctly American quality.  Ishmael doesn’t seem to be quite as ignorant, but he’s just as pensive.  Contemplating life, the people in one’s life, and one’s environment (not always accurately) seems to bring the three survivors together.  Maybe Melville was similarly inclined to reflect on such matters.

Now consider those who die – specifically Ahab, Bartleby, and Cereno.   Bartleby is puzzling.  The reader doesn’t learn much about this odd scrivener, except that he was a good worker until he stopped.  Bartleby seems depressed and eventually lacks the will to continue living.  We don’t know the origin of his depression, but we can speculate that it had something to do with work.  It’s similarly difficult to get a handle on Cereno’s character.   Ahab definitely has a contemplative side, as seen in his heart-to-heart with Starbuck during “The Symphony” and he’s undoubtedly clever, but his one-track mind seems to overpower any deeper thoughts that may begin to occupy his consciousness.

Another interesting point is that Ahab, Bartleby, and Cereno all lost a significant amount of their humanities prior to conking out.  Ahab was a man on a mission with complete tunnel vision from the start of the book, Bartleby was estranged from his work and preferred not to do anything, and Cereno lived in complete terror of Babo.  None of them were emotionally free.  None of them could ponder like their surviving counterparts.

There are lots of parallels we can draw between the characters that ultimately end up alive or dead at the end of these three stories.  I can’t list them all here but thought these connections were interesting.  Perhaps Melville wanted to make the point that free, contemplative thought, even if it borders on ignorance or naïvete, is a desirable quality or one that’s necessary for long-term survival.  In real life, practical people who take action quickly are more likely to survive a given situation, but Melville desires a world in which the qualities he treasures keep people alive.  In Melville’s world, this type of musing is what adds the human element.

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Mar 04 2010

The Lone Survivor

Having finished Moby-Dick, I am left to wonder, why is Ishamel the lone survivor? What qualities or characteristics does he possess that have enabled him to escape death and why has no one else also survived? As Professor Friedman discussed in class, writing the novel is Ishmael’s way of coming to terms with his near encounter with death, and his consequential survival. Retelling his journey is his attempt at understanding what happened to him and what this means for him moving forward. For us as readers, the answers to these questions involves examining the various characters Melville employed in his novel to explore human nature.

Ahab, the maniacal captain who challenges fate and destiny and is obsessive in his intent to destroy Moby is unable to achieve his goal, and is killed by the very object he uses to try and kill the whale. Melville suggests that trying to cheat, or deceive one’s destiny will not end well. Actively putting oneself above a higher authority, whether God, or merely believing one is superior to external forces, will only result in one realizing the various powers that affect one’s existence.

As a contrast to Ahab, the cautious, worrisome first-mate, Starbuck seems resigned to what he supposes is his inevitable death by Ahab’s fool-hardy quest. His “doomsday” attitude prevents him in a way from truly living and enjoying life. Through this character Melville appears to imply that simply moving through the motions of day-to-day activities is not a way to live. There is a difference between presenting oneself as superior to fate and submitting to an inevitable death.

Stubb and Flask use various forms of intoxication to float through life in a false sense of reality. While providing comic relief, Melville uses these two mates to show the futility of dulling the senses in attempts to escape the details of life.

Ishmael, a low-ranking sailor is “chosen” to be the single survivor of the battle between man and whale, and the ensuing shipwreck. He begins his voyage on the Pequod as an escape from the restriction and limitation of society and the depression he feels. Seeking solace and freedom as a means to alleviate his melancholy mood, Ishmael readily takes this chance to meditate on his thoughts, and ponder and philosophize out on the open sea. Starting his journey in a despondent state of mind, the wide, infinite horizon offers him a chance to reflect on himself and also to observe the sailors around him. This introspective nature serves him well, as Melville seems to suggest that thinking and intellectualizing one’s thoughts and emotions are significant traits in living to one’s full potential. His near death experience with Moby-Dick and resulting survival represents a sort of rebirth. Ishmael is adrift in the sea, and then saved by the Rachel, calling to mind a religious sort of revival and awakening, giving him the chance to start life anew, with all the knowledge he’s gained from his fellow sailors and life at sea.

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Mar 03 2010

I Believe I Can Fly: Different outlooks on life in Moby Dick

I first became interested in the varying philosophies in Moby Dick when I read about the carpenter. Ishmael describes the man like a pocket knife, saying that “if his superiors wanted to use [him] like a screwdriver, all they had to do was open that part of him” (451-2). At the end of the chapter, Ishmael tells us, “this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him…that kept him a great part of the time soliloquoizing” (452). The carpenter believes that everything is part of a machine, even people, and even parts of people. In fact, Melville begins the chapter by mentioning that when you think of humanity as a whole, each individual is the same as all the others. We are all part of the machine that is mankind. However, the carpenter, Ishmael assures us, is “no duplicate,” and that is why we should care about what he thinks (450). This got me interested in the individual philosophies of each of the characters in the novel. Melville wrote about them for a reason. They are not duplicates, and we should care what they think.

One of the most significant philosophies, I believe, is that of Queequeg. Queequeg is a foreigner. He is not white, and we know already that his religion differs from that of Ishmael and the other white sailors. Queequeg’s beliefs become really intriguing in chapter 110, “Queequeg in his coffin,” when he wills himself back to health. Queequeg explains to the sailors that “If a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him” (463). Immortality? It’s possible.

Now, because Queequeg did not fail in his attempt to deny death, Melville is saying not that it is possible in the real world, but that it is not a wrong belief. If Queequeg had failed, there might be a lesson in it, like: foreign beliefs are wrong, tribal cultures are wrong, Jesus is the way. But Queequeg succeeded, so what Melville might be advocating is that different religions are right for different people. If you believe it, it is true for you. Queequeg believed he had control over his own life and death, so he did. What I love about this chapter is that it reminds me of the novel Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It is about two people who, through will-power and good habits, defy death, and live for thousands of years.

One of my favorite characters in Moby Dick is Stubb. In chapter 39, “First Night-Watch,” Stubb assures us that “a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer” (163). I agree. What a line to live by! To have a sense of humor is the smartest way to go about life – enjoying every bit of it, having no regrets, and finding the good in what you might not like or understand. Stubb’s carefree disposition reminds me once again of Jitterbug Perfume, which teaches us that a light heart will get us everywhere. It makes me think either Melville is ahead of his time, or Robbins got inspiration from an unlikely place: a happy sailor in a dense tragedy.

Starbuck is the opposite of Stubb. He looks for the bad everywhere. In “Dusk,” Starbuck exclaims, “O life! ’tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee!” Starbuck is the serious sailor who doubts Ahab and finds omens. Bad omens. A fantastic contrast between Starbuck and Stubb occurs in chapter 114, when Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb ponder the beautiful sea. Starbuck asks of the sea, “Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways,” once again emphasizing the bad parts of a good thing, whereas Stubb declares “that he has always been jolly” (473).

One could then read the novel to the end, and interpret all this to mean that no matter your beliefs, you will die. Even Queequeg, who can fight and win against deadly illness, can and does die in battle with a whale. You can think, if you want, that we are all going to die, but Queequeg, Stubb and I believe we are all going to live, and I leave you with this: “we’re in no more danger…than all the crews in ten thousand ships now sailing the seas” (490).

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Signet Classic, 1998

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