Archive for the 'Labor, work, slavery' Category

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.

One response so far

Mar 04 2010

Touching the Monkey-Rope

Published by under Labor, work, slavery

I would like to again focus a post on a single chapter. Specifically, I would like to compare the monkey-rope in chapter 72 to a climbing rope. I am moving away from my usual category of gender to the umbrella of labor, work, and slavery, as the monkey-rope is used for labor and involves, as Ishmael says, a mortal wound to one’s free will, like slavery. Thus, allow me to compare chapter 72 of Moby Dick to one of the most astounding pieces of mountaineering lore: the true story, Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson.

Interested in mountaineering for much of my life, it was hard to miss Joe Simpson’s story of his own survival, but I brushed up my details with a sup-par article from Wikipedia, which can be found here:

First, the short version of Simpson’s story: Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, set out to make the first ascent of a 21,000 foot peak. They made it to the top, but on the way down Simpson fell and broke his leg. Since the two were low on food and fuel, they needed to make a quick descent to their base camp, so the two tied a pair of ropes together and Yates began to lower Simpson down the mountain in 300 foot intervals. However, at one point, Yates accidentally lowered Simpson off a cliff, and with the belay seat he cut into the snow crumbling, rather than allow them both to slide down the slope and fall off a cliff to their deaths, Yates cut the rope, resulting in Simpson’s fall off the cliff and into a crevasse. Yates figured his buddy was dead and down-climbed to base camp to save himself. Meanwhile Simpson didn’t die and managed to craw out the side of the crevasse and all the way back to base camp in one of the most impressive mountaineering survival stories ever told (which I do no justice).

Let’s begin now with a Footnote from Melville, describing the monkey-rope situation (337, Bantam Ed.):

The monkey-rope is found in all whalers; but it was only in the Pequod that the monkey and his holder were ever tied together. This improvement on the original usage was introduced by no less a man than Stubb, in order to afford to the imperilled harpooner the strongest guarantee for the faithfulness and vigilance of his monkey-rope holder.

However, Yates bypassed the fails-safes designed by that noble man Stubb, by severing his 300 feet of kernmantle money-rope; thereby saving himself while most likely dropping his friend to his death.

So here we have the dilemma of the monkey-rope and the climbing rope. As Ishmael points out, the situation of belaying another man, who in his imperiled state also endangers the belayer, is often a, “humorously perilous business” (336, Bantam Ed.). There is much inherent danger in summiting a high peak or being lowered onto a dead whale inundated in shark-infested water, but these are nonetheless humorous endeavor’s, in part to share a laugh to forget about one’s mortality, and simply in the sense that these can be seen as absurd practices. Why would any sane man ever allow himself to take the working end of the monkey-rope, or the sharp end (the leader’s end) of a climbing rope?

Though the monkey-rope is of hemp, and a climbing rope of nylon, and though the monkey-rope is found only at sea, only on a whaler, and in this technique, only on the Pequod, the situation of Ishmael and Queequeg, and the situation of Yates and Simpson can be found to be very similar. As Ishmael observes, being tied together for safety in a hazardous situation is very much a partnership, almost a marriage of sorts:

…for better or worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.” (336, Bantam Ed.)

“…my free will, had received a mortal wound; and another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death.” (337, Bantam Ed.)

These passages seem to make a strong case for the viewpoint that severing one of those lifelines is never the thing to do, and breaking that code of honor is worse than your own potential death. But on the other hand, though the assurance of death for the belayer gives insurance to the monkey, why should a mishap or misfortune take two lives when one can be spared?

However a pair of deaths cannot always be avoided, and that is why the agreement between these two people–the monkey and the monkey-holder, the climber and the belayer–is so important, as well as the selection of a capable partner in imperilment. Each of you must rely on the skill and vigilance of the other and each must hold up his end of the bargain if you each want to make it back on deck or back at base camp in one piece. But you have no other choice than to trust your partner. A monkey rope is no use without someone holding the other end. And of course, these safety measures–these lifelines–are far from a guarantee. Your partner at the other end of the rope can only do so much to protect you, and can just as easily endanger you.

Simpson did manage to survive his ordeal, and had Yates not cut the rope, they both may have fallen to their deaths, but would that make it acceptable for Ishmael to sever his monkey-rope to save himself, even if Queequeg was able to swim through the shark-infested sea to safety? That’s not a call for me to make. But it is too much to ask that Ishmael tie himself to the ship? I admire Stubb’s logic, but if you were to slip into the drink, wouldn’t you rather have your belayer pulling you out of the water than foundering in it along with you? Perhaps we can apply the same logic to our mountaineering story and say that, however dishonorable of Yates, it would be better for Simpson to have Yates come looking for him (dead or alive) than to have him lying dead next to Simpson at the bottom of a crevasse.

No responses yet

Mar 03 2010

The man who “preferred not to”

Published by under Labor, work, slavery

I just finished reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” for the second time (as I read it once last year in my freshman writing seminar), and have WAY too much to say about the fascinating tale of the man who “preferred not to.” I actually just reread the response I had to write for my freshman writing seminar and found that I focused on the idea of Bartleby endearing himself (if you can call it that) to the narrator by constantly being there. In this way, we can compare the narrator’s obsession with Bartleby to Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, as Ahab was constantly reminded of Moby Dick by the presence of his substitution leg. Additionally, both characters refer to Bartleby and Moby Dick as their fates, respectively. Anyway, I just wanted to briefly connect this story with Moby Dick before moving on completely from the novel…
Though it was hard for me to decide what to focus on in this post on “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I think I will decide on identity in the story (as that seems a good foundation to start with before tackling the other motifs). I spent the whole reading of the story underlining all of the points in which the narrator defines Bartleby in some specific, pointed way (by using certain adjectives, comparing him to certain great figures and even office furniture…), only to realize that the narrator hardly defines himself in such specific terms, besides to say that he is “a rather elderly man” and “a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (5 on the pdf file). We never even learn the narrator’s name. How curious that we have so many more defining terms for the character whom the narrator knows nothing about as opposed to the character whom the narrator knows everything about (the narrator himself)! Also, I find it interesting that the narrator “has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,” when Bartleby proceeds to challenge that conviction by doing essentially nothing and having what seems to be a rather empty existence that culminates in his death (or suicide, as he starves himself).
Anyhow, here are some of the phrases that the narrator uses to describe Bartleby:
•    “a sort of innocent and transformed Marius among the ruins of Carthage!” (14)
•    a “Son of Adam” (along with the narrator himself) (14)
•    “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” (Bartleby’s first appearance) (8)
•    compares him to “pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero” in his (Bartleby’s) lack of ordinary humanity (9)
•    “a lost column of some ruined temple” (18)
•    “more a man of preference than assumptions” (haha) (18)
•    “a mill stone” (17)
•    “a bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic” (17)
•    “harmless and noiseless as…these chairs” (20)
And, of course, there are many other passages describing Bartleby, as he is the focus of Melville’s short story. Also, we cannot forget that the narrator refers to Bartleby in the same way as the story’s title, as a “scrivener.”
First of all, we have to take into account that all of these descriptions belong purely to the narrator, and perhaps almost purely to his imagination. He knows nothing about Bartleby’s life other than the parts he has witnessed, and even in those he cannot probe very far into Bartleby’s interior. So, we cannot necessarily trust the narrator’s descriptions of Bartleby. The narrator does shape a certain picture of the curious scrivener, returning to similar imagery to describe him, such as that of Bartleby as the last component of some kind of wreck (“the ruins of Carthage,” “a ruined temple,” “a bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic,” this last one harkening again back to Moby Dick, even though they were in the Pacific at the time of the wreck). The theme of inanimate objects reoccurs, as well, in the narrator’s descriptions of Bartleby (a chair, a column, a piece of wreck, the bust of Cicero, a mill stone). We see why the narrator pities Bartleby (because he is alone in a terrible wreck of a world- if we want to go that far, or just alone in the terrible wreck of his own existence?) but cannot seem to approach him or really want to try to overcome him (because you cannot reason with a non-human- you cannot tell a chair to leave and never come back).
Sorry for jumping around so much, but one last comment about Bartleby in the narrator’s eyes, on how the latter compares the former to the bust of Cicero that sits in the office. I did some Wikipedia research and found that Cicero’s “career as a statesmen was marked by inconsistencies and tendencies to shift his position in response to changes in the political climate” (just type in “Cicero” to the Wikipedia search bar to find this information). This picture of Cicero starkly opposes the one we get of Bartleby as remaining mostly constant despite his change of situation (he occupies the same office after its former occupants leave; he stares at the wall in the office and the prison alike). Bartleby himself even states, “I would prefer not to make any change at all” (24). Also according to Wikipedia, Cicero “articulated an early, abstract conceptualization of rights,” something that Bartleby seems to stress with his behavior. He would “prefer not to,” so he does not. It is his right as a human. Bartleby’s death (his suicide, rather, his death-by-choice) can be seen as an abuse of these human rights (“Ah, humanity!”). I feel that Bartleby spends the whole story (inadvertently? the world may never know…) challenging the narrator’s idea of humanity, and as Bartleby’s nature grows more perplexing, the narrator grasps harder and harder to define him as something within his own realm of human understanding. Alas, I am hesitant make any conclusions about a narrative as perplexing as Bartleby himself…

One response so far

Feb 27 2010

“How the richer or better is Ahab now?”

Published by under Labor, work, slavery

“… I struck my first whale- a boy-harpooner of eighteen! Forty-forty-forty years ago! –ago! Forty years of continual whaling! Forty years of privation, and peril, and stormtime! Forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore.” (519)

This touching monologue by Ahab presents several questions.  Should “work” just be a job or lifetime passion? And how much should one sacrifice for that passion and work?  Is there a point when work devours the individual and leaves nothing behind?  Obviously Ahab is reflecting upon his life and asks himself if his time at sea has been worth all of the sacrifices or if it has been a waste.  He states, “…bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs…” (519) It is as though, until this point, he watched his life sail by without taking notice of all the things he forsook for the sea and now feels depressed about everything that could have been if he had been a little more aware.  He has given up hope, on life, on this voyage.  Virtually he sacrificed his youth, his family, his peaceful and his leg for the sea.  He begs to ask himself, “How the richer or better is Ahab now?” (519) Now at the end of his days, was it all worth it?

Perhaps part of the monologue is for the benefit of Starbuck, who is the only one witnessing Ahab’s emotional break down.  Ahab must see Starbuck as a younger, less crazed, version of himself.  Starbuck has a wife and a child.  Ahab is thus demonstrating what could possibly happen to Starbuck if he forsook his family for the sea.  It is a warning of a life lost, a life spent wandering the sea in search of meaning that very well could be found on land.

But even though Ahab recognizes all the failures of his life (his virtually widowed wife and fatherless child), he is unwilling to give up on the search for the white whale.  Starbuck offers him the opportunity to head home, to see his family, to experience a peaceful life ashore.  If Ahab abandons the search for Moby Dick now, it possibly be seen as yet another failure in his life.  He must finish and accomplish this one goal.  But I believe that Ahab acknowledges that the voyage and the whale may be his end.  Thus is his passion for the sea, his passion for whaling, were they worth everything that he gave up? Or is part of Ahab’s madness due to the fact that his life is so singular, so focused on the hunt for whales?

4 responses so far

Feb 26 2010

Bartleby and Modernity

Bartleby and Modernity

Written in the middle of the nineteenth century, the story of Bartleby is stunning in its presaging of the alienation of urban middle class life in the twentieth century and in our own time. In the words of continental philosopher Hannah Arendt, the world inhabited by Melville’s characters is fundamentally a ‘society of job-holders.’

Turkey, Nippers, Ginger-Nut, and later Bartleby stand in as social types of this coming milieu, with their disenchantment, ‘ambition and digestion,’ and automaton qualities. Bartleby’s eccentricities are initially viewed in a positive light, as contributions. ‘His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry…his great, stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition.’ (13) This modern efficiency is set against a backdrop of disillusion and sterility in the financial district. In a brilliant showcasing of Melville’s descriptive qualities, he remarks, ‘This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!’  (14)

There are many ways of approaching this story. I read it in this particular light mostly because of the sharp focus on the corporate world in our time. More importantly, the critique of labor implied herein is still relevant as our corporate culture continues to fulfill the Arendtian ‘society of jobholders.’

One response so far

Feb 24 2010

Ahab’s farewell

Published by under Labor, work, slavery

For my final blog post on Moby Dick, I am going to forsake my category and write, instead, about something I found very touching towards the end of the novel, that being Ahab’s relationship with Starbuck as their fate draws near. In Chapter 132, “The Symphony,” Ahab seems to pour out his soul to his first mate:

…Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board! – lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in thine eye!

In this passage, Ahab admits his humanity. He remembers his own family, and owns (in preferring the gaze of man to that of God or that towards sea or sky) that he, perhaps, regrets his life away from them and the “normal” human existence that he could have lead. Yet after this touching speech, Ahab proves he is set on his destiny by pursuing Moby Dick. He has Starbuck stay behind in the fateful chase, preserving what Ahab deems true humanity- a man with a family whom he loves, with attachment to the land. Ahab seems to equate land with humanity, here, pronouncing Starbuck’s human eye as the “magic glass” with the exclamations, “By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone!” He sets the sea and sky as separate from humanity in putting the gaze into the human eye as one on a different level from that into the sea or sky. Ahab, after all his years at sea, has become inhuman in losing his connection with the land. We may view his fixed idea of his destiny as one pre-ordained by God, in line with Melville’s religious awareness, or we can say that Ahab made his own fate by choosing a life that precluded the sort of destiny that includes dying peacefully by the fireside, wrapped in blankets while your wife and child murmur their last farewells. Ahab’s destiny was self-made, and he acknowledges this in his speech to Starbuck.
Ahab enforces this realization by having Starbuck stay behind. Ahab sees Starbuck’s “far away home” in his eye and knows that Starbuck has not yet sealed his own fate. Starbuck remains a member of humanity, a person of the land who sojourns at sea and no more, which Ahab used to be before he devoted his entire life to the non-human realms, that of sea and sky and God and “destiny.” Ahab’s tenderness towards the first mate comes out, then, as he reminds Ahab as his own lost humanity.
This brings us back to the beginning of the novel, in which Ishmael talks of how he has to go out to sea every now and then “as a substitute for pistol and ball.” In saying that he avoids suicide by going to sea, Ishmael inherently equates the two (“With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship”). In other words, Ishmael gets tired of being a human, so enters a realm in which he does not have to be. Death, certainly, is such a realm, but Melville frames the sea as one, as well. It is thus fitting that Ishmael sets out on his watery journey with Queequeg, a man who would challenge any American’s views of humanity in the 19th century.
The idea of a seaward voyage as the end of one’s humanity can be seen in Ahab’s final farewell to Starbuck in Chapter 135, “The Chase – Third Day.” Ahab says, “’Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!’” which instantly brings to mind the image of Ahab himself, boarding a ship and ever afterwards missing from humanity. He understands in retrospect why the course of his life played out as it did. By his speech in “The Symphony,” we see that Ahab questions his life decisions:

…Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase?…how the richer or better is Ahab now?

Ishmael, on he other hand, understands his exact reasons for boarding the Pequod before he does it. He does it to escape life so that he can be better equipped to return to it. Ahab up and left his life on shore and got too caught up in the world of whaling to properly think about his priorities. He acquires a “destiny” by accident, by carelessness. Ishmael thinks (like it’s his job), and he avoids a watery death.

3 responses so far

Feb 21 2010


Published by under Labor, work, slavery

My topic was “Characters and Characterization,” but when Professor Friedman said that we could branch out in our posting topics, I was very excited because I could write about the critical issue of the ship-mates’ will versus necessity in obedience to kill Moby Dick. This problem of will starts as soon as it begins. In the Quarter-Deck scene, after Ahab has “roused the troops,” calls for buy-in:

“Disdain the task [of killling Moby Dick]? What, when the great Pope washes the feet of beggars, using his tiara for an ewer? Oh, my sweet cardinals! your own condescension, that shall bend ye to it. I do not order ye; ye will it. Cut your seizings and draw the poles, ye harpooners!”(159)

That is, Ahab wants – or requires – his crew to hate the white whale, and have that be their motive in joining him on his quest. If Ahab truly just wants his crew to share his hate, it would be a sensical thing. In any group, the leader wants total commitment, total shared purpose. For instance, on a basketball team, much can be accomplished if everyone on the team understands the goals, and shares the will to do whatever each person can to achieve those goals. If their coach requires the team to get up at five in the morning for early morning cardio, the members go because they want to go, independent of their requirement to go, because they think it will help the team be the best it can be. The crew members on the Pequod don’t explicitly make any of these difficult sacrifices that basketball players might, besides the notable overarching likely sacrifice of their lives, but they do know the goal. It  seems, too, at first like there is emotional commitment, at least in their coach’s, Ahab’s, eyes. But unlike a good coach, or any good team leader, Ahab does not ask, ultimately, whether the crew members of the Pequod actually buy-in to his purpose. Indeed, right after he clamors, “ye will it,” instead of waiting for a response of confirmation, Ahab commands the harpooners. Their will is not known. But things get even hairier the very next line:

“Silently obeying the order, the three harpooners now stood with the detached iron part of their harpoons, some three feet long, held, barbs up, before him.” (159)

They obey the order. That word in itself must contradict what Ahab wants of his men. But moreover, they do it “silently,” denoting a grudging necessity to follow command, not stemming in any part from their will. Again, five a.m. workouts are no fun, but the team members give some indication that they want to do it. And though they are the harpooners alone, it is no stretch to see their silent obedience extending to the whole crew. Starbuck, in particular, is often mentioned silently carrying out Ahab’s commands, nearly always in opposition to what Starbuck, himself, wants.

It is unreasonable, too, given the Pequod crew members, for Ahab to expect them to mimic his will, especially with the passion and philosophy that necessarily accompanies it. More than just Starbuck flat-out disagreeing with Ahab on his most important issue, Flask and Stubb do not, cannot, hate the white whale alone in the way that he plagues Ahab. In this way, it seems clear to me that Ahab’s mission was doomed, even from the onset. Ishmael mentions that the crew was the best possible, and that may be true. They don’t mutiny, after all, and the mission is carried out to the last, no small feat. I don’t know if whether everyone had bought in to Ahab’s purpose that anything would have changed, but this fragmentation, this imperfection of the crew to achieve a shared goal, predetermined their failure.

One response so far

Feb 18 2010


Published by under Labor, work, slavery

In a book teeming with allusions- the Biblical multitude, those ranging across the literary canon, the scientific, and those with philosophical undertones, chapter 82, “The Honor and Glory of Whaling,” stands out as being less about allusion (and it’s not, since the characters and events are confronted directly) and more concerned with the validation of whaling in showcasing the numerous important (and powerful) historical figures who have been associated with the act. As opposed to many of the middle chapters, in which an explanation is followed by Ishmael’s ruminations on its philosophical meaning, he states outright:

“The more I dive into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very springhead of it, so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection that I myself belong, though by subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity” (324).

In the ensuing examples, Ishmael seeks not only to parade those mythic figures, but to also validate his own labor as an important enterprise. He makes specific reference to feats of whaling, like Perseus’ experience with the Leviathan, “an admirable artistic exploit, rarely achieved by the best harpooneers of the present day; inasmuch as this Leviathan was slain at the very first dart” (324). He compares whaling to artistry; even earlier he refers to the harpoon from stubs boat that kills a whale as “the magical line” (257). The act of whaling in itself, as Ishmael conveys in reciting these stories, is an almost supernatural act, the killing of an unkillable Leviathan by humans with human instruments, a task that should, by likelihood, be restricted to immortals and superhumans. Compare this to many of Ishmael’s earlier ruminations on his place in the labor hierarchy, serving under Ahab and the mates. Now, he is in the loftier position of being subordinate to gods and superhumans. His exploration of the powerful and famous associated with whaling is part of his book-long rumination on whaling as a concept- the legitimacy of whaling as an enterprise. He (and Melville) obviously have enormous respect for whales, but also clearly admire their historical and literary forbears. Melville/Ishmael never goes as far as to incriminate whaling or whalers in any negative pursuit, but it is clear that we should not necessarily take his commendations at face value.

No responses yet

Feb 16 2010

Coffin to Life-Buoy- the Carpenter’s Complaint

In Chapter 126, “The Life-Buoy,” Starbuck and the rest of the gang are confronted with the idea of making Queequeg’s former coffin into a substitution life-buoy for the one previously lost from the Pequod. In Starbuck’s practical yet nervous fashion, he instructs the ship’s carpenter to carry out this oddly morbid task, giving him step-by-step instructions on how to do the job until the carpenter shoos him away. After Starbuck takes his leave, the carpenter goes on to complain about his new assignment:

Now I don’t like this. I make a leg for Captain Ahab, and he wears it like a gentleman; but I make a bandbox for Queequeg, and he wont put his head into it. Are all my pains to go for nothing with that coffin? And now I’m ordered to make a life-buoy of it. It’s like turning an old coat; going to bring the flesh on the other side now. I don’t like this cobbling sort of business—I don’t like it at all; it’s undignified; it’s not my place. Let tinkers’ brats do tinkerings; we are their betters. I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something regularly begins at the beginning and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion; not a cobbler’s job, that’s at an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end…

I realize this above passage is a lot to deal with at once, but the carpenter’s main complaint is that the work he is told to complete, i.e. turning his previously made coffin into a life-buoy, is an “undignified” sort of work, the kind meant for someone of a lower station than his. The carpenter seems to think this because he is not given a new job in constructing this life-buoy, but is rather “tinkering” with something already made, even though it was done so by him. Thus, what mostly disturbs the carpenter is the idea of a never-ending job. (I’ll return to this point shortly.) His grumblings about such work lowering his station serve as a mere distraction for the deeper bother that pervades the situation of turning a vehicle of death into a vehicle of life, a bother that Starbuck transfers onto him with his nervous fussing about how the carpenter is to complete this task. We can see by their dialogue that Starbuck clearly annoys the carpenter with this fussing, and this annoyance prompts the carpenter’s soliloquy more than the lowly stigma of the job does. The situation is akin to when your mother makes you do the dishes against your will, and you mumble about how the dish soap smells bad when you really find the scent quite appealing but cannot simply acquiesce to the disagreeable task.
However, the carpenter does seem particularly caught up in the idea of the “never-ending job,” to which I previously alluded. He makes something that goes unused, and now he must make it to serve an entirely opposite purpose. The idea of this would frustrate anyone, but one would think the carpenter an exception to this rule in a circumstance in which he has the power to, essentially, convert death into life. Yet the carpenter exhibits complete indifference to such concepts, nonchalantly stating that Queequeg, the ungrateful man, would not even “put his head into” the coffin the carpenter had crafted for him! Instead, the carpenter favors the importance of a set of opposites different from that of life and death; he focuses on the idea of new versus worked-over, and “mathematical” versus muddled. As for the former in regards to labor, the carpenter’s favoring of the new alludes to a preference for trade work over labor in the fields and other types of maintenance work. If you work in a craft, you renew your work every day, creating a new table, for instance, each time one is commissioned. If you toil in the fields or mend people’s dysfunctional items, performing labor akin to those of slaves and the lower classes, your work is never fresh- you are always toiling from the same, old cloth, so to speak. This exposes the way society, in Melville’s time, prompted people to view different types of work as more or less “dignified.”
On the topic of the carpenter favoring the “mathematical” over the muddled, this could relate to the idea of skilled versus unskilled labor. However, I think this has something to say about fate, destiny- people’s lives. Though the carpenter refers directly to his job of converting the coffin, he may also be saying that people go about changing their minds in regards to their destinies. Queequeg cannot just commission a coffin one day and suggest it be turned into a life-buoy the next! He has no respect for fate, in behaving so. The carpenter thinks things (humans, in particular) should have finite lives (of which they are not completely in control), consisting of clear beginnings and expiration dates. This, too, relates back to his preference for trade work over cyclical labor in the fields or the mending of broken goods. Fixing the broken or changing an object’s use is going against the idea of destiny. In turning the coffin into a life-buoy, the carpenter is wary of messing with fate.

3 responses so far

Feb 11 2010

The Monkey-Rope

Published by under Labor, work, slavery

Many of the middle chapters of the novel concern work on the ship, the multitude of which Melville/Ishamel detail in order to convey the scope, amount, and difficulty of the labor involved in running the ship. Ishmael also outlines the hierarchies of labor and laborers present on the ship, which I discussed in my last blog post. I wanted to hone in on a specific chapter, “The Monkey-Rope,” which follows Ishmael’s pattern of detailing work on the ship in the context of a philosophical lesson. It depicts one of the most difficult parts of the whaling process, displays hierarchy (or the lack thereof) between workers, and besides that, it is a pretty funny visual. “In the tumultuous business of cutting-in and attending to a whale, there is much running backwards and forwards among the crew,” Ishamel begins the chapter. “Now hands are wanted here. And then again hands are wanted there. There is no staying in any one place; for at one and the same time everything has to be done everywhere. It is much the same with him who endeavors the description of the scene” (286). The consistency with which ‘all hands’ are required in this long, arduous process, the improbable task of piecing apart a mostly-submerged whale merely tied to a ship in the middle of the rolling ocean, is truly a testament to the whalers’ abilities, which Melville clearly admires. The actual use of the monkey-rope sees Ishmael and Queequeg literally joined at the hip by a cord as Queequeg attempts to mount, then strip the whale; Ishamael senses the absurdity of this labor, terming it a “humorously perilous business” (287). After detailing the labor, Ishmael reveals the philosophical ‘point’ he is using it to make.

“So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two: that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me in unmerited disaster and death” (287).

Although he somewhat dehumanizes himself and Queequeg as laborers, Ishmael more importantly recognizes the necessary breakdown of the labor hierarchy in order to get the job done. Lacking free will, the labor itself now governs them, and both lives depend on each other’s skill and commitment to the labor. It is interesting to work in a job in which one literally faces death, which Ishamel recognizes. Also funny (in a dark way) is the scene in which Tashtego and Daggoo thrust their whale-spades into the water after the sharks, which endangers Queequeg’s life with every thrust. In an occupation filled with hazards, this is certainly one of the greatest. Ishmael, though, sees philosophy in labor once again, and even the humor in putting one’s life in peril.

No responses yet

Next »

Social Widgets powered by