Moby Dick Read-A-Long Chapters 1-15: Fine Young Cannibals

Welcome back, read-a-longers! We finally get to talk about the actual book. Share your thoughts in the comments, or better yet, link to your own post.

Lost at sea? For all the details on this read-a-long, including schedule and sign up, click here.

Etymology and Excerpts

The book starts with the origin of the word “whale” and a collection of whale-related excerpts from literature, philosophy, and scripture. This section reminded me of when Homer Simpson tries to teach himself about marketing by reading an advanced marketing book, and trades down to simpler and simpler books until he’s reading the dictionary.

Homer Simpson Marketing


The excerpts are great. They show the huge variety of ways in which people deify and demonize whales. Of course, the excerpts only go up to the mid 1800s, and I couldn’t help but think about the modern ones I would add:

  • Blubber by Judy Blume: Talking about bullying before it was cool. She didn’t even have to wear a pink shirt.
  • She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb: Just your basic girl meets dying whale, girl goes batshit crazy story.
  • Free Willy: Charming children’s movie and popular euphemism for taking one’s dick out.

Okay, onto the actual story!

Chapters 1-15

  • Lots of lead up: Chapters 1-15 take us up to page 83 in my paper copy, and we haven’t even got on the boat yet. This section is all about setting the scene, introducing our narrator (call him Ishmael) and his BFF, the heavily-tattooed “Feegeean” Queequeg. We follow Ishmael from New York City to New Bedford to Nantucket as he prepares to go on his first whaling voyage.
  • Lots of funny: The tone of this first section is surprisingly light and funny. Hilarious, actually. Ishmael’s roundabout logic as he explains why he decides to take part in Queequeg’s “pagan rituals” made me LOL:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolater in worshiping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? – to do the will of God? that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow-man what I would have my fellow-man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow-man. ANd what do I wish that this Queequeg woudl do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater.

  • Heart of Darkness: I can’t help but compare the way Queequeg is introduced to the way Conrad talks about the “savages” in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s European characters are half thrilled, half disgusted by the thought that they have anything in common with the “savages” they encounter in The Congo.  Queequeg is certainly seen as “other,” and Ishmael is terrified of him at first, but Ishmael accepts him so quickly, and so readily, and not just as a shipmate but as a friend (or perhaps more, see below,) despite the fact that he sells shrunken heads and is casually described as a cannibal.

For all this tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.

  • HoYay!: For those not familiar with this television-fandom term, HoYay! is short for “Homoeroticism, Yay!” and refers to situations, dialogue, etc. that could be interpreted to have homoerotic undertones, and suggests that fans of the show are generally in favour of this interpretation, usually in a somewhat ironic way. Exhibit A:
    Ryan and Seth

    California, Here We Come

    Ishmael and Queequeg meet in the bedroom and things just get cozier from there. I was most definitely NOT expecting this element of the story, and I think I finally get the “HoYay!” concept, because it is indeed delightful.

Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

Tune in Next Week: 

Chapter 16 is called “The Ship” so things are about to get nautical.

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Heather of Between the Covers has the distinction of the first person to giggle about the Dick in Moby Dick. I am shocked it took this long.

@ebookclassicsand I are reading neck and neck!



  1. Heather

    After I typed out “I’m starting off with some Moby-Dick,” I realized how kind of bad it sounded. Hahaha!

    I really enjoyed the first 15 chapters. You’re right–there is a humorous undertone throughout this section. I especially loved the parts where he was talking about the water and how it effects people. How it draws them sometimes subconsciously. How it makes him feel better, less depressed. This is exactly what water does for me. I grew up in the Finger Lakes region in NY, surrounded by water, and I just love it. There is nothing like sitting on a lake shore, listening to the lapping water, watching it’s movement. It’s so very relaxing. Aside from my parents, the water is what I miss most about home.

    As far as the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, I like how Melville used language about marriage and love to describe their friendship. We discussed this in an American Lit college course I took, and we came to the conclusion that we have to be careful about simplifying this too much. Theirs is a very deep, connected friendship, but not really in anyway sexual. To get hung up on the what we see as a potential sexual side to their relationship (not that I’m saying you’re doing this at all) is to miss out on how special/tight their friendship is. I remember this being a rather lengthy conversation in that Lit class.

    • lauratfrey

      That’s fascinating! I was being cheeky in my post, I know it’s about their friendship. I do find it interesting how their friendship is portrayed in a way that many people would not be comfortable with today. It reminded me of Victorian “man friend” photos. Check these out:

      I wonder if this is specific to American culture/literature? I read a lot more Canadian and European than American, now that I think of it, so maybe that’s why I haven’t encountered this kind of relationship before.

      • Heather

        I know you were being cheeky–it just reminded me of that conversation years ago.

        I don’t know if it’s more specific to American literature. I’ll have to think about it and do a little Googling.

    • emmawolf

      “Theirs is a very deep, connected friendship, but not really in anyway sexual. To get hung up on the what we see as a potential sexual side to their relationship (not that I’m saying you’re doing this at all) is to miss out on how special/tight their friendship is.”

      *nods* It makes me think of the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald in Harry Potter. Or at least, what I thought before Rowling outed Dumbledore.

      I don’t remember my conversations about it when I was reading it in school, but I do remember that my teacher kind of used “sex” as a default theme/motif of literature. Yes, there is a lot of sex in literature, but it was pretty over the top when he said there was a sexual allusion in the instructions to the AP exam that he got from the test makers. (I loved that teacher, but sorry for that tangent.)

  2. jaynesbooks

    Really liked this section and felt that it was quite “readable”. I really liked how it seemed fluid and didn’t stay too long on one point or move too quickly; it seemed right. I love how the story between Ishmael and Queequeg wasn’t sexual, instead it was of two people who were pcomfortable with each other. I know some may play up the homoerotic, but I don’t think it was nor did I think of it that way; it is more of a deep friendship rather than a sexual relationship. Now most people would think that they are “in the closet”, when in fact, they were probably just comfortable with each other

  3. Caitlin

    Really enjoyed the beginning of this book. I thought it would be really painful to get through the beginning. its why I’ve read so few classic novels – dropping out from boredom after three chapters. Tony telling me that men were sleeping together in the 8th ? Chapter got me curious.. That and a plane ride with no ipod..

    Highlight – Ishmael being a good christian by taking part in pagan activities

    Low – the fact that after 15 chapters, they aren’t even on the eff’ing boat!!

    • lauratfrey

      The Yojo stuff was my favourite part too. I heard there were religious themes in the book, so was kind of ready for a big downer, but it’s actually pretty subversive. Not what I expected.

      They get on the boat in chapter 16! It’s all good.

  4. ebookclassics

    You can tell me if this is a bad idea, but after every reading I calculate on my phone how many chapters are left to read. I’m enjoying the book, but I wish the historical/zoological chapters were separate from the story because I lose my reading groove. I agree that Ishmael and Queequeg are totally a cute couple. Love a good bromance!

    • Caitlin

      I was saying the same thing about the zoological stuff… Though I may have exaggerated when I complained to Laura that they went on about the many types of whales for what seemed like 100 pages… It may have only been five pages. Made a decent sleep aid though!

  5. Pingback: Reading Roundup: May 2013 Blogging Breakthrough | Reading in Bed
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  7. Brie @ Eat Books

    I totally didn’t read the Etymology section. I actually quite enjoyed this first part. I wasn’t expecting the humour and witty-ness of the narrator so it was a nice surprise to say the least. And I definitely wasn’t expecting a friendship (relationship?) to develop between Ishmael and Queequeg. I have to admit though, I’ve never heard of the term YoHey! before this. I hate getting old.

    So I’m almost caught up to the end of part 2 reading, and a lot of it I’m like BORING. One more chapter to go before the ‘Ahab’ chapter! I’m looking forward to FINALLY meeting him.

      • Brie @ Eat Books

        Bahahaha! The first time I typed it out, I wrote “HoHey!” and then scrolled back up to double check and typed “YoHey!”. Oh god, I am old now, aren’t I!? 😉

        RIP The OC

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