October 08, 2012
Whaling Contracts in Moby Dick, Part I
I have been immensely enjoying (at a rate of one chapter a day) re-reading Moby Dick as part of the Moby Dick Big Read, through which each of the 135 chapters of Melville's sprawling classic novel is being broadcast in downloadable form. You can read more about the project here, but let me just say that it is a very fine thing to get a five-to-thirty minute dose of Melville's prose delivered in a variety of accents on a daily basis.
Which brings me to the contracts hook (or perhaps harpoon) in this case. Melville's narrator, let's call him Ishmael, signs up on the whaler the Pequod in Chapter 16, a text version of which can be found here. When asked of his experience at sea, Ishmael makes the mistake of telling Captain Peleg, one of the Pequod's part owners and agents, that he had been on serveral merchant voyages. Pressed further, Ishmael admits that he wants to go on a whaling vessel because he wants to see the world. Peleg responds by exhorting Ishmael to look out at the sea.
The prospect was unlimited, but exceedingly monotonous and forbidding; not the slightest variety that I could see.
Ishmael returns with this report to Peleg and yet still wants to "see the world," despite Peleg's insistence that he could travel to Cape Horn and still see only more of the same monotony. At that point, Peleg suspends his skepticism and owns that Ishmael may as well sign the papers. Here is Ishmael's description of his expectations of the agreement to be negotiated:
I was already aware that in the whaling business they paid no wages; but all hands, including the captain, received certain shares of the profits called lays, and that these lays were proportioned to the degree of importance pertaining to the respective duties of the ship's company. I was also aware that being a green hand at whaling, my own lay would not be very large; but considering that I was used to the sea, could steer a ship, splice a rope, and all that, I made no doubt that from all I had heard I should be offered at least the 275th lay- that is, the 275th part of the clear net proceeds of the voyage, whatever that might eventually amount to. And though the 275th lay was what they call a rather long lay, yet it was better than nothing; and if we had a lucky voyage, might pretty nearly pay for the clothing I would wear out on it, not to speak of my three years' beef and board, for which I would not have to pay one stiver. . . .
Upon the whole, I thought the 275th lay would be about the fair thing, but would not have been surprised had I been offered the 200th, considering I was of a broad-shouldered make.
But Captain Bildad, Peleg's business partner, does not share Ishmael's estimation of his value and suggests putting Ishmael down for a 777th lay. After a spirited exchange between the partners and one mad rush by Peleg at Bildad as Peleg shouts "Out of the cabin, ye canting, drab-colored son of a wooden gun- a straight wake with ye!" , Ishmael signs up for a 300th lay.
Tomorrow, we shall discuss how Ishmael's cannibal companion, Queequeg, fares.
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