Of Course You Can’t Trust Him—He’s Narrating

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”

Adrienne Rich.

It’s funny the way this book works on me: It spends 35 chapters deferring any revelations on the plot, and just as it finally establishes what’s really at stake, I go haring off after the narrator. Specifically, I want to look at the way our whole second section of the book communicates the extent to which the story is mediated through Ishmael’s narration.

Obviously, I’m not saying anything controversial when I note that no narration can be taken at face value. For all that some literature tries to pretend otherwise, there is no such thing as pure, direct truth in any narration; narration is always the result of choices and omissions that inevitably shape it. (Like I said, not controversial.) But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting in the ways a narration differs from The Truth. And in Ishmael’s case, we get such a self-consciously artificial narration that I think it fairly makes the case for meaning as mostly constructed, rather than transcendentally existent.

Paul carefully traces the buildup of suspense about Ahab, and I agree with him, but I think it’s also important to recognize it as part of Ishmael’s narrative strategy. Melville foregrounds the mediated nature of the book by beginning with a narrator who refuses to vouch for the name he gives us. This is explicitly going to be Ishmael’s arrangement of events and his conclusions on their import. Paul describes Ahab as Melville’s “master creation,” which is true, but Ahab is only ever depicted as Ishmael’s creation. The whole book is Ishmael’s telling, the whole story Ishmael’s dramaturgy.

And I use the word “dramaturgy” advisedly—chapters 36 through 40 are all explicitly theatrical. “The Quarter-Deck” (ch. 36), which is by far the most eventful and dramatic chapter up to that point, begins with a stage direction. Then we get three monologues and an unwelcome premonition of Ulysses‘s interminable “Circe” episode, fully formatted as a play. At first I found this chunk of text almost inexplicably strange. I went along for the ride and enjoyed it, but I didn’t know where it came from. Then I looked back and saw that Ishmael had been patiently laying his groundwork for a couple dozen pages at least. Chapter 29 is the first with a stage direction (“Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb”), and as a title, no less. Two pages later comes the “Cetology” chapter (of which more anon)—which truthfully doesn’t much advance my dramaturgy argument, although it does foreground the artificiality of the narrative (that wasn’t the anon I was talking about)—and then at the end of chapter 33, “The Specksynder,” Ishmael gives us a straight-up statement of his mission:

Nor, will the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direst swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his art, as the one now alluded to.

But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!

“I will invent what I have to,” Ishmael says, “to tell the story I want.”

And then a whole chapter that he must have invented! “The Cabin-Table” (ch. 34) describes a whole scene that Ishmael is forbidden to attend. He gives himself a possible out with a throwaway line about “peep[ing] at Flask through the cabin sky-light,” but I’m not convinced. (Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” avails me nothing in the line I’m taking, so I have nothing to say about it outside these parentheses.) After all that preparation for the dramaturgical angle Ishmael intends to approach on, I shouldn’t really have been surprised to see overt drama.

Now: “Cetology.” I love this chapter, because it’s so assured and almost absurd at the same time, and because it’s so obsessively detailed, and because it’s so delightfully bibliophilically artificial. The man categorizes whales by size like paper, and breaks his categorization down by books and chapters. The note on the classification scheme is a pure pleasure: “Why this [Octavo] book of whales is not denominated the Quarto is very plain. Because, while the whales of this order, though smaller than those of the former order, nevertheless retain a proportionate likeness to them in figure, yet the bookbinder’s Quarto volume in its diminished form does not preserve the shape of the Folio volume, but the Octavo volume does.” The whole scheme is arbitrary; Ishmael announces a definition of “whale,” then proceeds to lay down a division without any express authority. It’s pure ipse dixit, presented as science. This cetological plan is only barely more organized or sensible than the classification in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If Moby-Dick, as I’ve asserted before, wants to be about everything, within that ambition is an anti-totalizing recognition that meaning is always constructed, no matter how comprehensive it aims to be. The “Cetology” chapter stands as a perfect symbol of that tension, which is why it’s always meant so much more to me than just a dry taxonomy.

9 thoughts on “Of Course You Can’t Trust Him—He’s Narrating

  1. Paul June 5, 2010 / 8:18 pm

    Jeff, this post is fantastic (and not just because you mentioned me twice). My only gripe is that I wanted more!

    I have always loved the idea of an unreliable narrator. And while it is a given that narrators are unreliable, it’s easy to forget that fact, especially when we place our trust in one.

    I have also come from a place in which Moby Dick is not really something that people read. You should hear the amount of mockery I am getting for reading this book from people at my work (and I work in a library!). Given that< I haven't really thought much about the masterful opening line. In fact I've always wondered why everyone loved this opening line so much.

    So it goes without saying that I never gave any thought to the possibility that "Call me Ishmael" could be replied to with, "Why, is that not your real name?" Is this whole story a big ol' fabrication?

    It has led me throughout so far to wonder how come a) he's trying so hard to convince us that what he's telling is the truth, b) how he knows so much about whaling if he's only set sail this one time (or perhaps this is his first time and he pursued that foreverafter?) and c) how there's many things that (according to my copy of the book), Melville is taking from other nonfiction writers. Would readers know of these other texts?

    I just got sidetracked and have now lost my train, but mayhaps I'll come back to it.

    But thanks for making me think!

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston June 5, 2010 / 10:53 pm

    Melville pulls a similar trick in Typee, in which he tells the natives of the eponymous island that his name is Tom. He says that he thinks they’ll have an easier time with that name than with his real one, but in fact they stumble over it and wind up calling him Tommo. Melville insisted that Typee was a pretty much factual account of things that actually happened to him, and maybe he did try to provide a simpler name for the benefit of the natives, but I couldn’t help noticing that he pulled a similar trick in both books. There’s also narrative distancing in invoking the sub-sub and the consumptive usher for the extracts and etymologies.

    It may be worth pointing out, with respect to narrative shifts (among other things), that some critics believe that there are at least two and probably three modes of composition that explain lots of curious things in the book (disappearing characters like Bulkington, the late appearance of Ahab, a whole bunch of doubling of characters) that arose out of a change in direction fairly late in composition. A book that may have begun as a travelogue rather like Typee may have taken on a life of its own partway through composition and resulted in a sometimes almost careless stitching in of the newer elements.

  3. MT June 6, 2010 / 3:20 am

    Cetology is just hilarious, took me forever to get through b/c I kept putting my book down and giggling. MD has been very Pale Fire for me (wacky, unreliable narrator), this chapter the most-so thus far.

  4. Daniel June 7, 2010 / 12:45 pm

    I’m so glad that you brought this up because it’s been on my mind a lot. Especially what Paul mentions above – when Ishmael first signs up to sail on the Pequod it’s clear that he’s only ever sailed in the merchant marine, but in his narration he presents himself as a whaler of long experience. (See his dismissive reviews of pretty much everyone’s attempt to ever draw a picture of a whale. I don’t have my copy handy for citation, but one of his quips actually made me say “Oh snap” out loud.)

    Along these lines, what do you make of the whole Town-Ho story? Actually, it’s Ishmael telling the story of the time he told the Town-Ho story to a couple of Dons in Lima, so there’s plenty of framing going on (which fronts even more clearly that this isn’t truth, but some guy telling a story). Then, he says that he heard the story second-hand from people who were there, but swears on the Gospels that he had spoken to those people directly, and that he had been on the ship some years after the events described. But how would that have happened? Would someone have stayed on that ship for years after the mutiny, until such time as Ishmael would have met him there or even sailed with him? And how would that chronology work out, as Moby Dick himself appears in the Town-Ho story?

    Alternatively, is it possible that his traveling on the ship and meeting survivors of the mutiny occurred at two separate times? This reminds me of Ishmael’s insistence that despite the vastness of the ocean, it is, nevertheless, somehow possible to hunt one individual whale. There are no coincidences.

  5. mattkish87 June 8, 2010 / 3:24 pm

    Being a part of this group blog and reading these incredibly impressive posts (and comments) has been a fascinating experience for me. I never had the opportunity to read and discuss “Moby-Dick” in any class, so for me, this intense investigation into the text is a real first. I’ve read the novel multiple times, yet I find myself learning more than I ever imagined even from these simple posts. This was marvellously well written and deeply educational, Jeff.

    One of the things I find so interesting is the amazing variety of impressions each reader seems to have. Jeff seems to enjoy the chapter “Cetology” for some of the same reasons I do although I will confess my love of that chapter is a good bit less intellectual, and perhaps more related to the preposterous pageant of whales, described as if they are part of a bestiary, while MT found it hilarious.

    I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add to that magnificent post other than to say that these posts have enhanced my enjoyment of the novel as well as my understanding of it almost as much as the act of multiple readings has. And I am very grateful for that.

  6. MT June 9, 2010 / 1:33 am

    Mattkish87, that’s good, and I agree, the group-reads really open up the kaleidoscope. And PS, MT is a clown that always finds things funny. 🙂

  7. MT June 27, 2010 / 10:14 pm

    Were we at the Town-Ho story yet here? For me, his “swearing on the bible” at the end of chapter LIV counts as another bullet-point in the case that he really is a fat liar…or a drunken embellisher, a tall-tale-teller…there’s a whale pun in there if anyone’s up for it..

    • Jeff Anderson June 28, 2010 / 1:01 am

      MT, I’m pretty sure the Town-Ho was in the next chunk of chapters, but that doesn’t make your point any less true. Also, because I have never been an Episcopalian in the mid-1800s, I thought it was comically odd that he swore on “the Holy Evangelists.” Actually, now that I look at it, there’s a pun too: He swears it’s the gospel truth.

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