Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Moby-Dick versus Great Expectations

from Moby-Dick, chapter 28

Now, it being Christmas when the ship shot from out her harbor, for a space we had biting Polar weather, though all the time running away from it to the southward; and by every degree and minute of latitude we sailed, gradually leaving that merciless winter, and all its intolerable weather behind us. It was one of those less lowering, but still grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy rapidity, that I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I levelled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.

from Great Expectations, chapter 37

After a little further conversation to the same effect, we returned into the castle, where we found Miss Skiffins preparing tea. The responsible duty of making the toast was delegated to the Aged, and that excellent old gentleman was so intent upon it that he seemed to be in some danger of melting his eyes. It was no nominal meal that we were going to make, but a vigorous reality. The Aged prepared such a haystack of buttered toast that I could scarcely see him over it as it simmered on an iron stand hooked onto the top-bar; while Miss Skiffins brewed such a jorum of tea that the pig in the back premises became strongly excited, and repeatedly expressed his desire to participate in the entertainment.

Here's what I notice: Melville's outside world is so vivid; Dickens's contained world is so vivid. Both novelists use the word reality with particular emphasis. Melville depends considerably on his remarkable adjectives: vindictive, melancholy. Dickens depends on comic metaphor, exaggeration, personification: "melting his eyes," "haystack of buttered toast," the expressive pig. Melville's sentences begin as long, complex, grammatically challenged constructions and gradually narrow themselves down to "Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck." Dickens's sentence structure is less obviously melodramatic, but it does subtly move our attention from character to character, place to place, item to item while making sure that everything coheres as a single unified scene.

I think that both of these passages are extraordinary. I was lying in bed last night, waiting for the onset of the Nyquil stupor, when I read "vindictive sort of leaping," and I was stunned. A phrase like that can single-handedly quell sleep. And the fireside scenes in Wemmick's house are among my favorite moments in Great Expectations. I love the Aged Parent; I love the backyard pig. I love how Wemmick, and therefore Pip, regain their goodness in that setting. I love all that buttered toast.


Teresa C. said...

AAARRGGGHHH...I fell behind a bit last week in MD & GE but will catch up by end of this week. What chapters are we reading to?

Dawn Potter said...

We seem to be wildly varied. One reader tells me he's up to chapter 40 in MD; he appears to be our current champion. I've made headway in GE (chap 38) so am presently focusing on MD, where I've reached chap 28.

Scott said...

Dawn, I'm not reading Gr8X, which speeds up my reading. I remember it from high school, and how peeved I felt at Pip, ungrateful boy.

I'd never read Moby-Dick, I do feel, as someone said, as if I'm wading through a swamp at times, but it's still a good book.

Dawn Potter said...

Scott, I just got to that place in "MD" you mentioned in your previous comment: when the point of view suddenly shifts from Ishmael into third-person omniscience. Very strange.

Al and Adam said...

I was just thinking that I had finally caught up to you at least in Moby Dick by reaching Chapter 26, but I'm way behind at Chapter 18 in Great Expectations. (Is it a valid defence to say that I'm behind because I was working on finishing a couple of other books that had to be returned to the library this past week?) Anyway, I was so mad at Melville for taking a two-chapter time out to defend whaling. It felt like the story was just beginning to get going, and then he paused for a public service announcement. And The Lee Shore chapter just seemed oddly-placed and perplexing.

On the GE front, I have read it once before, but I can't believe how much I overlooked before or had forgotten. I look forward to refreshing my memory of Pip's visits to Wemmick's house.

Ruth said...

Just briefly, I've been noticing the food scenes in both books and what they say about the relationships and about the class structures.

Dawn Potter said...

Tell more, Ruth!

Ruth said...

I noticing in MD the breakfast where Queequeg sits at the head of the table and uses his harpoon to spear the steak, an obvious "breach of etiquette" the meals of 3 kinds of chowder and then the meal time scenes aboard the Pequod where there is such a distinct division betwee the ranks of officers and the unease of those serving the 3 harpooners. In GE, note the differences from the initial "meal" that Pip gives the convict that is changing his life and yet he aspires for the "elegant, refined" society of life as a gentleman. Then that decaying wedding feast and the intimate tea with joe contrasted with the uncomfortable meals of the higher class That's all I have in this time frame...More perhaps in a bit..Off to a poetry open Mic