Class Discussion Paper
3.8.97, Moby Dick
Silence and Secrecy in Moby Dick
I find Melville's recourse to secrecy and silence in the first hundred pages of Moby Dick intriguing. What I want to do here is detail four ways he uses secrecy and silence. I think we're still a bit early in the text to investigate what he might be trying to accomplish -- but nevertheless, it will be interesting to note that his use of secrecy and silence is not incidental.
We are presented with a fist person narrator who appears to be spinning a yarn about his adventures on the high sea. Ishmael addresses his reader with familiarity and the folk-simplicity of a story-teller, "Call me Ishmael". However, as Carolyn Porter points out, the name Ishmael connotes dislocation, and leads us to believe that our narrator is related in some way to the historical outcast. She says,
If Ishmael is first an exile whose very name invokes the boundary between outcast and society, by the end of the papragraph he has crossed that boundary to speak in the name of "all men." By shifting from eccentricity to normality, Ishmael establishes in embryo a pattern to be repeated and developed in the chapter as a whole, where boundaries are invoked in order to be crossed and finally blurred. (Call me Ishamel, or How to Make Double-Talk Speak, 73)
One of the central boundaries Ishmael will cross and recross in the next hundred pages is the boundary of withheld information. This is one of Melville's uses of silence: a silence which leads the reader (and Ishmael) to believe that specific information has been ommitted. "Some years ago--" Ishmael begins, "Never mind how long,"(1): Ishmael introduces the pattern of offering and then withdrawing knowledge in these lines.
Later in the text, Peter Coffin withholds information from Ishmael. He plays with him, describing his future bedmate as "a dark complexioned chap" who "eats nothing but steaks and likes `em rare"(13). To Ishmael's persistent questions: `Who is he?' and `Where is he?', the tavern-keeper gives half-answers. Coffin continues to play with Ishmael, hinting at the eccentricities of the future bedfellow: "I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, maybe, he can't sell his head.(17)"
Coffin's game is echoed still later in the text by the more ominous hints and ambiguities that Elija offers. Elija frightens Ishmael, as Coffin did, by erecting a boundary of secrecy between them concerning a person who Ishmael expects to have an intimate relationship with: Queequeg with Coffin, and Captain Ahab with Elija. "Look ye; when Captain Ahab is all right," Elija says (91), "then this left arm of mine will be all right; not before."
When Ishmael confronts Elija, he responds evasively.
"What do you know about him?"
"What did they tell you about him? Say that!"
"Look here, friend,"said I, "if you have anything important to tell us, out with it; but if you are only trying to bamboozle us, you are mistaken in your game; that's all I have to say."
"And it's very well said, and I like to hear a chap talk up that way; you are just the man for him -- the likes of ye. Morning to ye, shipmates, morning! Oh! when ye get there, tell `em I've concluded not to make one of `em."
"Ah my dear fellow, you can't fool us that way -- you can't fool us. It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him."
"Morning to ye, shipmates, morning."
Melville has introduced secrecy and the act of witholding information in a couple of different ways here -- both playful and mysterious. It strikes me that Ishmael's reaction to secrecy might be quite similar to a reader's reaction to a text: he is a little impatient, feels compelled at once both to find out more and dismiss the mystery. The boundary of secrecy is repeated in the text itself. The reader takes Ishmael's role as an outcast, a diviner, plumbing the mystery of the text. What will happen next? What is withheld? What is Melville trying to keep from me?
A third mystery, also concerning Captain Ahab, involves the silence of Captains Peleg and Bildad. The Captains construct an elaborate lie to deal with Ishmael's questions about his captain's whereabouts. After leaving their company, Ishmael feels a "wild vagueness" concerning Ahab -- a sentiment not quite new to the text.
Aside from these three mysteries, Melville addresses the problem of secrecy and silence in other ways. Consider the first night of Ishmael's journey: he enters a strange town at night and walks alone down dark and abandoned streets. All mirth, sound, and light are contained behind the sealed windows of taverns too expensive for him (7). He comments on the general desertion of the place (8). A lone man walking in a vacant town, he marks his path by naming it, by crossingthe boundary of the strange and familiarizing it. In the "negro church" where a hundred silent faces watch him slink back out the door and into the steet, he defines this unknown congregation as "The Trap", and refers to a sermon on "the blackness of darkness, and weeping and wailing and gnashing teeth (8)". In this scene, analogies between foreigness, blackness, darkness, and silence begin to appear.
This analogy may help us understand Queequeg. Queequeg, whose introduction in the text is surrounded by mystery and play, is a dark, foreign, silent figure. He is outside of Society, more of an outcast than Ishmael. Queequeg needs a translator to interact with Society -- Ishmael takes the role of the translator. If Ishmael, as Carolyn Porter suggests, characteristically crosses and blurs boundaries in the text, this is surely a major one. He is the medium through which Queequeg becomes intelligible. Again, the reader duplicates this function. The words of the text must be translated by a reader in order to gain meaning.
A third use of silence in the text occurs when Ishmael and Queequeg met for the first time. What does it mean to the reader that upon seeing Queequeg, the narrator is "speachless'? What is a wordless narrator? Ishmael observes Queequeg silently, as Bryan Wolf says, "a comic witness". When Ishmael wants to talk, he can't. He attemtps to talk; he realizes that he needs to -- but he is bound in a "spell" (23). It isn't until Queequeg crosses the boundary of touch that Ishmael can break his silence. Wolf argues that:
Language is what allows Ishmael to retain his visionary status, or, to be more precise, it is the lapse of language that subjects Ishmael to Queequeg's bodily interrogation. langugae is what defends the visionary self, however comically presented, against his own bodily status. (When Is a Painting Like a Whale?: Ishmael, Moby-Dick, and the Sublime 163).
Interestingly, the body boundary is the the first to establish an intimate relationship between the two unlikely bedfellows. Ishmael awakes in the morning to "Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife (25)". The sharp difference between the dark, unintelligible foreign man of only a few hours earlier and this is perhaps the most incredible example of boundary erasure in the first hundred pages.
The last example of silence I'd like to adress is in Ishmael's reference to the whale. He introduces the whale into his narrative at the end of his first chapter, as "a portentous and mysterious monster", and "undeliverable, nameless". He refers to the "wild and distant seas where he rolled his inland bulk"-- drawing into contradistinction the remote sea and the "inland bulk". The whale is it itself an outcast, an anomaly of crossed boundaries. It is "nameless" -- divorced from society: a secret, a silence, a foreign (or at least distant) entity. Is the whale -- an outcast, a crosser of boundaries -- like Ishmael? Will it be Ishmael's role to "socialize" the whale by bringing it ashore and naming it? If the reader is like Ishmael -- an outcast and a decipherer of texts, a `namer' -- then is the reader like the whale?