Reading Melville at Sea: On Women

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My friend Karen driving her dinghy in the Ragged Islands.

Captain Bildad’s sister, Charity, steps into and out of the narrative in the blink of an eye in this chapter.  She seems more like a symbol than a character, for she really plays no role in the movement of the plot.  She personifies goodness, largesse, generosity, thoughtfulness:

Never did any woman better deserve her name…and like a sister of charity did this charitable Aunt Charity bustle about hither and thither, ready to turn her hand and heart to anything that promised to yield safety, comfort, and consolation to all on board a ship in which her beloved brother Bildad was concerned, and in which she herself owned a score or two of well-saved dollars.

She’s sexless and, interestingly enough, an investor in the whaling ship.  Not simply a fountain of good works for others, but also a woman who promotes her own financial interests, and seeks to make a profit through her good works.  She’s the perfect Protestant capitalist. 

She’s also a Quaker.  Melville’s Puritan ancestors used to strip and whip Quaker women through the streets of town, punishing them for thinking differently, indeed for thinking at all, and for speaking their thoughts in church.  Ishmael seems to regard her as a somewhat frightening force:

But it was startling to see this excellent hearted Quakeress coming on board, as she did the last day, with a long oil-ladle in one hand, and a still longer whaling lance in the other.

The oil-ladle for dispensing the substance that burns and provides light; the lance the weapon that castrates. 

It seems that many male sailors still regard women in these absolute, polarized terms.  They want us to be kind and merciful to them, to cook and clean and shop and provide, but they don’t want us to drive the dinghy or steer the main vessel, and they certainly don’t want us to have the upper hand. How many women captains do you know?  How many men would consent to the status of “admiral” or “first mate?”  None that I know.  And we women go along with the game, and fail to do our homework and allow them to wield the power. 

At any rate, we’ll hear no more about Aunt Charity in this novel, and no women will sail with the Pequog.  Does that make it a “man’s book,” as many of my women cruiser friends assert?  More to follow.

Women Who Won’t Drive the Dinghy

The number of women who either cannot or will not drive a dinghy in our times astonishes me, especially when you consider that 99.9 % of cruising boats have two crew members: a man and a woman.    It’s a simple safety issue.  If he falls over or gets sick and you can’t drive….

Perhaps this should not astonish me, given the astonishing difficulty that so many Americans seem to have in electing a woman for President. 

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Who is at the helm?

Reading Melville at Sea: On women and chapter six

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The women of New Bedford, Ishmael informs us, bloom only in summer and their bloom is unmatched everywhere except in Salem, where

The young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

Is this some elaborate, juvenile joke whereby Ishmael means to say that women smell like fish ?  Or that for all they look to be of an entirely different species—the pale, blue-eyed Puritan species, they smell just the same as the darker girls in the Spice islands?  He is speaking of ambergris, which was obtained from Sperm whales and used by perfumers after it had aged.  When it first comes out of the whale’s gastrointestinal tract, it smells like faeces. 

Like the women of New Bedford, the  women of Spanish Wells also seem to bloom only in summer, and when they are young, they appear to do very little other than strike fetching poses while seated next to young men driving boats.  For example, as we exited Channel Cut—which is nerve-wracking because the current rushing through it is so strong, and the channel between the coral on both sides so narrow, that it is only safe to go through it at slack tide— we saw a small fishing boat come roaring out behind us.  The young man standing on the bow, with one hand locked into the painter as though he were riding a bronco, the other ready with a spear, could have been one of the Pequod’s crew.  The other young man at the helm steered the tiny craft straight into the waves with what seemed an insane speed.  And the girl?  She just sat there, utterly passive, indifferent to the brave action around her, completely useless!  She might as well have been a statue.  And so common!  I found it very strange that I did not see a single woman driving a boat, not even a dinghy.

Ishmael takes a stroll around New Bedford and admires the strangers from distant shores he sees there: “actual cannibals chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom carry on their bones unholy flesh.” I wonder if vegans look at those of us who rejoice as we sink our teeth into bloody, red flesh, find it amazing that we, too, walk around in public, unhindered?  Do they regard us as savages? But that is the point Melville is making, isn’t it?  That the very people who think of themselves as refined and civilized are, in fact, quite brutal and bloodthirsty? 

Consider Ishmael’s observation that all the lovely, tidy mansions in the town have been “harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”  He reminds us that the tidy, civilized life on shore comes not just from the unruly, savage life on the sea, but also from the labors of the dark “savages” who toil on the ships owned by the White men on land.