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Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick, Episode 4: Chapterology

“Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby-Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself. And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.”

D.H. Lawrence, A.D. 1923.

Three installments into this series of enthusiastic but ill-informed ramblings, I’d like to stop and catalog the types of chapters we’ve come across so far.

This is difficult. My map is more likely to be filled with “here be monsters” and other ephemera than detailed topology, but this is the best I can do, aided as I have been by your comments and input, dear readers.

I do this because, while many scholars and dilettantes have bent their quills to an explication of Moby-Dick, none prepared me to face the variety of different approaches, chapter-by-chapter, within. It seems a near-impossible task to catalog thoroughly, but the lesser task of describing rough groupings is a windmill at which I will humbly attempt to tilt.

So. According to tone and complexity, I divide the chapters of Moby-Dick into three primary groups, embodied by actors (I hope I will not be accused of male-centrism, here, as Moby-Dick is, as I’ve previously discussed, epically male). I would then subdivide further, but let’s be fair, this metaphor is already rather tortured and would surely break under further strain.

To classify the three types of chapters, I have chosen these avatars:







These chapters, as discussed in previous installments, can be found largely in the earlier areas of the book, including The Carpet-Bag, Chowder, and The Mast-Head, among many others (I am far too full of whiskey to do a more thorough review of this and other categories, so please feel free to suggest better exemplars). These narratives appear carefree, enthusiastic, and sometimes naïve, although often with a dash of apprehension or black humor. Our protagonist, who insists we call him Ishmael (and have we heard anyone else call him by that or any other name? I think not), would be right at home in many of Mr. Franco’s hipster-stoner roles, most of which have (or hint at the possibility of) deeper intentions.



In some respects, these chapters were the most similar to my expectations, including tension, badassery, and the gayest straightness this side of three hundred oiled Spartans, but represent a middle ground between the shaded lightness of JAMES FRANCO and the batshit insanity of JOAQUIN PHOENIX. Captain Ahab’s first appearance, in Ahab, as well as The Quarter-Deck, and, to some degree, Ramadan (among others, et cetera) can be safely counted among their number. These chapters can tend to the heavy-handed, but effectively combine dramatic tension and somewhat purple prose with more serious foreboding. Also you get the sense that someone just might whip out their dick at any moment.



By far the least numerous type so far in my journeys, although I suspect this ratio will not hold, these chapters seem to go off the rails of the narrative completely, whether into a preemptively defensive debate on the merits of the profession of whaling (The Advocate) or a Forrest Gump-like explication of the various types of whales (Cetology); in the latter example, I’m less sure it’s even Ishmael still talking. Who is the narrator? Who is Ishmael? Who is the protagonist? Is he serious about his new rap career, or is this all some sort of elaborate setup?


Beyond these three rough examples, I will go no further, although I’m under the impression that there are chapters in my future that will not fall into any of these three rough (and handsome) categories, but will venture further afield. But what actor will they be like? Will Jake Gyllenhaal be there? Channing Tatum? Ben Affleck and/or Matt Damon? Sam Jackson? Brian Blessed? Vin Diesel? Arnold Vosloo? Christopher Lambert? Clancy Brown? That guy from Homeland? I’ll leave them all out for now, but wouldn’t be surprised to encounter any of these men, or many others, in upcoming chapters.

Finally: look, I said that this would be an imperfect system, and I clearly wasn’t lying. I’ll have to leave it as-is for now, since I haven’t yet read any further than Chapter 36 (The Quarter-Deck) and I’m unlikely to update it again later. Please feel free to build upon these humble beginnings, or grant me the Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience to do so myself.


Jake Bartolone: Exactly that type of person.

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  1. Who is teaching Moby Dick right now? I seriously feel this has so much to offer as a teaching exercise. Hester Blum, Peter Coviello, Jordan Stein. Mandy Berry would ask the key question: WHAT ABOUT GOSLING???! Jake Bartolone, you have much to answer for on that score.

  2. Yeah, I don’t think Gosling fits, at least not in his currently iconic all-things-to-all-women incarnation. There may be a Hawthorne short story somewhere that counts as Gosling, or, more likely, a non-tendentious bit of Thoreau.

    On the other hand, this presents a deceptively difficult game of MFK, (at least if one believes the domestic violence rumors re: Fassbender).


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