I agree with E.M. Forster that Moby Dick, one of my favorite novels of all time, is a prophetic or transcendent story. So how happy was I to discover in The House of Mirth, which also strikes a profoundly transcendent note, a hitherto unremarked connection to Moby Dick.
Yes, both novels are fantastic. And both reverberate in haunting ways that compel you to search out the source of their music by snugly pressing your ear to the surface of things.
But I have something else in mind, prophecy and transcendence aside: two exquisite and entirely unforgettable scenes. And not just any ole’ scenes, I’m talking about—yep!—bedroom scenes, with a little man-on-man and woman-on-woman action, respectively.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
As you may recall, Ishmael is at the Spouter-Inn where, for lack of available rooms, he has to share a bed with a harpooner and cannibal. Alone, Ishmael thrashes about on an uncomfortable bed, unable to sleep. Finally he dozes off when Queequeg throws the door open and enters the room. “Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares.” When Ishmael’s fright wears off, he settles down for the night with his “terrible bed-fellow.”
Then we get this lovely bit on union, which goes way beyond brotherhood and male camaraderie.
Upon waking the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife…. Queequeg was hugging me…in a bridegroom clasp.
A great and wonderful and immensely important scene in the overall plot development of the novel.
Now, maybe you’re uncomfortable with the whole man-on-man thing, and prefer a little mud wrestling without the mud. So here’s the set up: Lily has just narrowly escaped Gus Trenor’s obscene clutch. Disgusted and horrified, she desperately seeks refuge and comfort at Gerty’s flat, where…
There was but one bed…, and the two girls lay down on it side by side when Gerty had unlaced Lily’s dress and persuaded her to put her lips to the warm tea. The light extinguished, they lay still in the darkness, Gerty shrinking to the outer edge of the narrow couch to avoid contact with her bedfellow.
Affectionate by nature, Gerty avoids Lily because Lily hates being touched. But the urgency of Lily’s situation is just too great.
“Hold me, Gerty, hold me, or I shall think of things,” she moaned, and Gerty silently slipped an arm under her, pillowing her head in its hollow as a mother makes a nest for a tossing child.
Admittedly, the image of a mother soothing a child is pretty damn moving. Still I give my nod to Ishmael and Queequeg for starring in the world’s most literary (in part because transgressive)
Any other contenders?