Calm before the Storm?

Melville knows a thing or two about pacing. First he riles up his reader with the exciting tale of Ishmael and his new cannibalistic bedfellow, Queequeg. Once his reader realizes that Ishmael indeed survives the night without getting eaten (which would make for a much shorter book), the author slows things down a bit and gives his reader a chance to catch her breath. But perhaps Melville slows things down a bit too much. The Classics Slacker was in danger of dozing.

Because, over the next 10 pages or so, our narrator, Ishmael, details a series of his doings where he’s doing nothing. Ishmael wakes up next to Queequeg. Ishmael watches Queequeg get dressed. Ishmael eats breakfast. Ishmael walks around New Bedford. Yawn.

Wasn’t Ishmael supposed to go on some sort of voyage? Yes indeed. Back on page 1, there it is: “I thought I would sail about a little bit and see the watery part of the world.” Then why the dressing, the eating, the walking?

Who knows? Apparently, Ishmael thinks this is interesting stuff. Regarding QQ’s morning routine: “At that time in the morning any Christian would have washed his face; but Queequeg, to my amazement contented himself with restricting his ablutions to his chest, arms, and hands.”

If anything is amazing it’s that Ishmael is captivated by all this. At least he knows he’s being a bit of a weirdo and not as cultured as the cannibal. “He treated me with so much consideration, while I was guilty of a great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding.”

Breakfast is another borefest, as the rowdy sailors of the previous evening sit mute before their coffee and hot rolls. Ishmael had thought breakfast would be an entertaining affair, that he would “hear some good stories about whaling.” But none are forthcoming. “To my no small surprise nearly every man maintained a profound silence.” He never explains why the boarders are boring. Just that they are.

So Ishmael leaves the table to stroll around New Bedford and nothing really happens there either until Ishmael goes to Whaleman’s Chapel.

And then, finally...something of interest. Within the walls of the chapel Ishmael reads marble memorials of dead men “lost overboard,” “towed out of sight by a whale,” “killed by a Sperm Whale” etc, etc. “It needs scarcely to be told [which of course means he’s going to tell us anyway], with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage [yippee, there is a voyage coming at some point, maybe even tomorrow] I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me.”

In sum, the memorials cause Ishmael to think “hmmm.” But not to worry. Although he knows he may die at sea, he calls it “a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of man into Eternity.” Which has got to be better than a slow orderly dying of reader by boredom.