Showboating

When the name of a church is “Whaleman’s Chapel,” you can bet your fish and chips that the dominant décor is “Naturally Nautical.” The Whaleman’s Chapel does not disappoint. Dead sailor memorials and gigantic paintings of drowning ships festoon the walls. A pulpit, fashioned in the likeness of a ship’s bow, towers above the pews. In fact, it is so massive and high up that it merits its own chapter title: “The Pulpit.”

The Classics Slacker thinks the pulpit sounds a tad over the top for a humble house of worship, but Ishmael defends it: “The whole contrivance, considering what manner of chapel it was, seemed by no means in bad taste.” Okay. Still, Ishmael, who has just stumbled into the place, wonders how the sermon-giver (Father Mapple) is going to deliver a sermon from that height, especially since the pulpit lacks an obvious means of ascent. “The architect, it seemed, had acted upon the hint of Father Mapple, and finished the pulpit without a stairs, substituting a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea.”

Ishmael also reports that “the wife of a whaling captain had provided the chapel with a handsome pair of man-ropes for this ladder.” Which makes the Classics Slacker wonder, how in the name of Long John Silver does Ishmael have so much insider information about the construction of the pulpit? Maybe he happened to sit next to the wife of the whaling captain and she said, “Hey, you, you’re new here, right? Guess what? I provided the man-ropes for the ladder.”

Anyway, once Father Mapple finally appears on the scene, sleet still dripping from his Gorton Fisherman’s hat, Ishmael can tell that he’ll have no problem climbing the rope ladder. He notes that the vigorous pastor is in “the hardy winter of a healthy old age.” And indeed he climbs up with no difficulty whatsoever.

Now situated in the pulpit, Father Fitness appears ready to deliver a sermon, but the parishioners haven’t quite settled down. They’ve no doubt seen this rope-climbing trick dozens of times, and it doesn’t impress them the way it transfixes Ishmael. So the pastor has to call them to attention, which he does thusly: “Starboard gangway, there! Side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!”

Now, the Classics Slacker was dragged to a few Catholic masses in her youth, and witnessed some weird stuff. But the Catholic priest knew that his congregants were sitting in pews, not standing ready to jib the sails (or whatever you call it; the Classics Slacker knows nothing about boats). This Father Mapple seems to have lost his oyster crackers.

Strangely, Mapple’s minions know that “larboarding the gangway to starboard” means sit down and shut up. Father Mapple “slowly turns over the leaves of the Bible,” apparently trying to pick the parable du jour. But he’s really just milking every second, trying to build up dramatic tension because he chooses (surprise!): Jonah and the Whale!

His parishioners, living as they do in New Bedford, Massachusetts, no doubt have heard this story as often as foghorns. Nonetheless, they larboard themselves to starboard and listen to Father Mapple drone on for the next seven pages.

The Classics Slacker would’ve definitely jumped overboard.