Monday, October 05, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Stubb's Exordium

This week in our slow progress through Moby Dick, I'd like to take another look at Melville's methods of characterization. In "The First Lowering," he uses dialog in a fascinating way to portray the minor character of Stubb. But Melville is doing more than telling us about this one guy--the characterization is really of the man in relation to his crew, what happens between them. Partly because Stubb is a minor character, this portrayal serves to tell us something about humankind generally. These revelations themselves are rather unexpected, especially in the context of the full-on pursuit of a whale:

"Pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children; pull, my little ones," drawlingly and soothingly sighed Stubb to his crew, some of whom still showed signs of uneasiness. "Why don't you break your backbones, my boys? What is it you stare at? Those chaps in yonder boat? Tut! They are only five more hands come to help us never mind from where the more the merrier. Pull, then, do pull; never mind the brimstone devils are good fellows enough. So, so; there you are now; that's the stroke for a thousand pounds; that's the stroke to sweep the stakes! Hurrah for the gold cup of sperm oil, my heroes! Three cheers, men--all hearts alive! Easy, easy; don't be in a hurry-- don't be in a hurry. Why don't you snap your oars, you rascals? Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so, then:--softly, softly! That's it--that's it! long and strong. Give way there, give way! The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Pull, will ye? pull, can't ye? pull, won't ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don't ye pull?--pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out! Here," whipping out the sharp knife from his girdle; "every mother's son of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That's it--that's it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits. Start her-- start her, my silverspoons! Start her, marling-spikes!"

Stubb's exordium to his crew is given here at large, because he had rather a peculiar way of talking to them in general, and especially in inculcating the religion of rowing. But you must not suppose from this specimen of his sermonizings that he ever flew into downright passions with his congregation. Not at all; and therein consisted his chief peculiarity. He would say the most terrific things to his crew, in a tone so strangely compounded of fun and fury, and the fury seemed so calculated merely as a spice to the fun, that no oarsman could hear such queer invocations without pulling for dear life, and yet pulling for the mere joke of the thing. Besides he all the time looked so easy and indolent himself, so loungingly managed his steering-oar, and so broadly gaped-- open-mouthed at times--that the mere sight of such a yawning commander, by sheer force of contrast, acted like a charm upon the crew. Then again, Stubb was one of those odd sort of humorists, whose jollity is sometimes so curiously ambiguous, as to put all inferiors on their guard in the matter of obeying them.

It's a remarkable achievement, in the middle of an action sequence (the maritime equivalent of a car chase), to bring out the subtle interplay of "fun and fury" in Stubb's tone. Almost any other author would have all the boat captains simply yelling "Go! Pull! Faster!" at their crews, and we readers would likely think that was fine. This is not the time for individuation. But the more I think about Stubb's use of "curiously ambiguous" humor to motivate his crew, the more realistic it seems.

This is one of those times when I'm reading a novel and feel certain that some actual experience of the author's is breaking through the fictional veil. Occasionally that is a bad feeling--as if the author has failed to sufficiently distance himself from that experience, so it sticks out in the narrative as a kind of unpolished lump. But here, I'm just sensing Melville's extremely close attention to real human behavior. He's not just observing Stubb's tone, but the practiced skill with which he deploys it; we understand how Stubb has, over many years, honed the fun / fury contrast to the precise razor's edge that will get the results he wants. The tone is as precariously balanced as the whale boats, and its goal is to keep the men off balance. Stubb knows that off-balance men are obedient men. They get and appreciate his humor (in what, after all, is a life-threatening situation), but they, like the reader, sense its oddness in this context. They obey him not out of fear of punishment, but of the unknown. Perhaps he is not quite in his right mind; but they have no way of knowing, and they are in no position to try to find out.

In a sense we have here the Pequod in miniature, but instead of Ahab at the helm (he is commanding his own whale boat at the same time as Stubb), we have someone else. Stubb is strange in a different way from Ahab: less threatening, perhaps, and more cunning...but when one's in the middle of a roiling sea, harpoons flying, do those distinctions really matter? Everyone, Melville seems to suggest, is under the sway of these odd, complex, funny and furious forces whose motives we can never quite discern. We obey these forces because we can't make sense of them.

This whole scene also just seems like a slightly more watery version of the typical workplace. The boss in Office Space, for instance, is also a manipulator. Of course he's portrayed as the devil, whereas Stubb's more ambiguous; and the boss is passive-aggressive where Stubb is over-the-top aggressive. Still, both have crafted a distinctive style of verbal manipulation ("Um...yeah...I'm gonna need you to come in on the weekend...") that makes their characters indelible.

So the take-away for this week is to think about how people in real life manipulate others, and how complex those strategies of manipulation can be. We can translate those interactions into our fiction, showing both sides of the equation: how one character deploys verbal power, and how and why others react to it.

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