Melville is a subtle, sophisticated mind, to be sure.
But his techniques aren’t always so delicate. He often establishes mood with a jack hammer, for instance.
The streets of New Bedford are dreary and black. Lights flicker from dirty windows like “candles moving about in a tomb.” Smoky lights, ashes of Gomorrah, howling winds, savages and cannibals—these are just some of the elements swirling in this gloomy atmosphere.
Melville isn’t so subtle with foreshadowing, either. Ishmael pokes his nose in the Spouter-Inn owned by Peter Coffin. “Coffin? – Spouter? – Rather ominous in that particular connexion, thought I.”
Despite these elephantine steps, Melville is easy to forgive. He’s so gifted in every respect that matters.
I especially appreciate the tantalizing clues he drops along the way, revealing the design and purpose of Moby Dick. Upon entering the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael describes a painting in marvelous detail.
On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted. But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant… The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.
Such delicious phraseology—besmoked, chaos bewitched, and squitchy, especially squitchy! I feel my toes sinking through layers of foul, nasty-smelling muck.
The subject matter of the oil-painting is the same as the subject matter of Moby Dick, so what is true of the oil-painting — it’s a representation that requires “diligent study and a series of systematic visits” and “earnest contemplation” before its meaning is understood — is certainly true of Moby Dick. Even more so because Moby Dick is a more complicated type of representation than a painting.
Isn’t Melville, 32, our “ambitious young artist”? And doesn’t the story vibrate with “sublimity”?
I think so, just as I think that the “three blue, dim, perpendicular lines” are mastheads. That they are Ishmael, Ahab and Queequeg, standing in the shadow of a great contest. That they are appetite, reason and spirit. And that they are the trinity of conscience, too, à la Faulkner: knowing and caring, knowing but not caring, and not knowing. I also think they mean more than that, depending.
But that would require another “oft-repeated pondering.”
And this one is done.