Friday, March 18, 2011

The Pipe and the White Whale

The soul of Moby Dick becomes the center of the novel. When the ship embarks on the voyage, Captain Ahab knows that it will be for the hunt of the white whale. The spirit of the whale is present throughout the main interactions of the novel. Queequeg and Ishmael bond through his spirit; in his hunts, Stubb expresses the honor that only the whale can trump. Captain Ahab is ruled and tortured by the spirit. In all of these situations, the spirit is present in the form of a pipe. Melville inserts this image, sometimes subtly, within all of these interactions. The pipe, then, represents the soul of the white whale, and constantly pushes the characters that interact with pipes to the physical white whale.


There is a distinct connection made between the pipe and the whale in the chapter “The Fountain,” in which Melville discusses the windpipe of the whale, which functions both as a gas pipe and a water pipe. The whale’s windpipe is thus his most fundamental life source; he uses it to breathe, and to expel the water that he sucks in during his feeds. It is also the source of the majesty of the whale — the spray that surges from the windpipe has created a mystical image of the whale, “I have heard it said, and I do not much doubt it, that if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes, it will blind you” (Ch. 85). The windpipe functions as a source for legends, and brings the life of the whale aboard whaling ships through the sailor’s stories. It forms both the literal life and the mythical life of the whale.


The first appearance of the pipe in the novel is at Queequeg and Ishmael’s first encounter each other at the Spouter Inn. Ishmael desperately pretends to sleep as Queequeg practices his bedtime prayer rituals. Ishmael is fearful of the “cannibal” with whom he will soon share a bed, but does not dare speak until Queequeg at last lights his tomahawk pipe and jumps into bed with him. Then Ishmael suddenly expresses his first reaction and cries out for the landlord. After the landlord comes in and calms Ishmael, he agrees to sleep with Queequeg, but begs that he puts out the pipe. Ironically, as their friendship grows after the first night, Ishmael enjoys smoking the tomahawk pipe in bed with Queequeg as they converse before sleep. The pipe becomes a fundamental part of their relationship; it at first is a source of resistance, but then enjoins the men and begins to form the bonds that will guide them through their whaling expedition.

This occurrence of the tomahawk pipe between Ishmael and Queequeg in bed relates to the life of the whale because it is during these conversations that the men decide they will embark on a whaling expedition together. It anticipates the adventure where they will soon hunt the white whale, Moby Dick. They are then connected throughout the novel. As we discussed in class, Ishmael carries on the life of Queequeg after his death, by transcribing the copies of his tattoos and returning to continue Queequeg’s “duty ashore.” The life of the Moby Dick brings about the death of Queequeg, but it also reenforces the connection between the two men. Their union begins with a pipe and ends with Moby Dick; the life of the whale is ever present in their embarkment.


The pipe also appears when Captain Ahab reflects on his battles with the sea and decides that he must discard the pipe. Ahab “tossed the still lighted pipe into the sea. The fire hissed in the waves; the same instant the ship shot by the bubble the sinking pipe made” (Ch. 30). In his soliloquy, Ahab reflects, “Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring—aye, and ignorantly smoking to windward all the while; to windward, and with such nervous whiffs, as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble” (Ch. 30). The discarding is a representation of his wishes for the whale’s death, yet he returns the smoking pipe to the water, the home of the Moby Dick, where he still remains. When he tosses the pipe, Ahab also tosses his ability to reason. He carried with him the soul of the white whale in that pipe, but when he returns it to the ocean he begins his transition to obsessive insanity in the necessity to recover what he once had in his grasp. Eventually, Ahab sinks with the pipe to the ocean’s depths. He loses his life to the life of Moby Dick and the soul of the white whale remains in the sea.


Stubb, who is an avid pipe smoker, is often depicted smoking right before the capture of a whale. Such is the case in the chapter “Stubb Kills A Whale.” As the crew reels in the lines thrown by harpooneers, Stubb puffs and yells commands (Ch. 61). Yet, when the chase for Moby Dick comes to the hunt, Stubb carries no pipe. He does not partake in his hunting routine, but instead has only the fear of the life of the whale that is about to take his own. The pipe for him represents success in the feat. But Stubb is no match for Moby Dick; the life of the white whale diminishes the honor that is displayed by his pipe (and even replaces the pipe because). Stubb’s honor in whaling is sacrificed to the greater honor of Moby Dick’s life.


Discuss Ch. 61 “the whale looked like a portly burgher smoking his pipe of a warm afternoon. But that pipe, poor whale, was thy last.”


The final appearance of the pipe comes in Ch. 105, entitled “Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish?—Will He Perish?” “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” As the title of the chapter suggests, it is a deliberation of whether Captain Ahab will succeed, or whether Moby Dick’s strength will permit defeat of his pursuers. As it turns out, the white whale is victorious, and the Pequod destroyed along with Ahab. Moby dick does not smoke his last pipe, but continues to live. The pipe — as Moby Dick’s soul — continues to burn in the depths of the sea.

2 comments:

  1. I have to admit, I didn't really see connections you did to the pipe and Moby-Dick. I realize the men decided to go on their expedition together whilst smoking a pipe - which ultimately lead them to the White Whale - but the symbolism is still somewhat hazy to me. I really liked the argument about Ahab and his pipe, though. The idea of his sanity being held in an object that may be representative of a spirit has a lot of potential. You could talk about the battle of good and evil that we discussed in class and going further, the battle for Ahab's spirit. It's apparent his reason is still present because he has a sound and rational motive for throwing the pipe out.

    Your ideas were a lot more intuitive than I could've conjured up if I chose the pipe - so kudos to you

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  2. This will seem a little like a tangent, but bear with me.

    The Greek word for spirit or soul is Pneuma; what it literally means is "breath"; it's where we get works like Pneumonia. Similarly, the Hebrew word for soul, is, I understand, literally to be understood as "breath." Breath = soul is a universal or near-universal equation.

    The equivalence of life, soul, and breath, then, actually transfers rather nicely to the pipe. At least, that's my view. *But* that doesn't mean that is the only thing, or even the primary thing, the word means.

    For instance, the tomahawk-pipe is as blatant a phallic symbol as you're likely to find. And, of course, sailors (like most men in this time) were heavy tobacco users. So we have the literal drug, the phallic symbol, and the symbol of breath/soul. Then, on top of that, we have the claim that this general symbol of the soul stands in specifically for MD's soul.

    I'm not saying you could, or should, have covered all of that. But one reason I think Jordan is struggling a little bit isn't because your idea is absurd, but because there are other possible symbolic dimensions here, and you need to convince us, for instance, that we need to see Stubb as being deeply connected to MD rather than just being a very heavy smoker (presumably because life at sea sucks; possibly, as is discussed elsewhere, because smoking continually is a way of managing the unpleasant odors of the whale fishersy).

    This has potential, but with a topic like this, you need to consider various possibilities, and not just focus on the one you want.

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