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First line of Moby Dick

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JRWB
1260071.  Tue Nov 07, 2017 7:18 am Reply with quote

On the last programme of the current series (‘Oceans’, broadcast 3rd November 2017), Sandi asked a question about the first line of Moby Dick. The answer ‘Call me Ishmael’ was given, and Sandi duly agreed, giving the rest of the following sentence as part of the answer.

I was somewhat surprised that this did not set the klaxon off, because it seems an answer that typifies the spirit of QI – a thing that we commonly assume to be a truth, but isn’t actually so.

Whilst ‘Call me Ishmael’ is indeed the first sentence of Chapter One – this is not the first line of the book. Our perception that this is the opening line, often causes us to misread the book; we assume that Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, and yet at various points Melville is at pains to point out that this cannot be so. See, for instance Chapter 37, ‘Sunset’ – which begins with the stage direction ‘Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out’. Ishmael is not present in this scene, nor can he possibly know Ahab’s inner thoughts which comprise this chapter. It’s one of many such details that suggest that Ishmael’s narrative is just one of many which are bundled together in this varied and encyclopaedic book.

We would be alerted to this point if we looked for what is actually the first line of the book, which begins:

Quote:
Etymology

(Supplied by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school)

The pale Usher – threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.


These lines, which come after the front matter (quotation from Paradise Lost, dedication to Nathaniel Hawthorne, contents) are not some editorial note, but actually part of the fiction. Who is the pale Usher? We know that Ishmael may have been a schoolteacher in his past, but does this form the connection? Can we even, with any certainty, suggest that it is Ishmael who ‘see[s] him now’ – when his character is not always present for the rest of the book? This is then followed by another section of fiction prior to 'Call me Ishmael' concerning the Sub-Sub-librarian (perhaps a forefather of the QI Elves themselves).

It is just possible that Ishmael’s narrative is one of the many assembled ‘extracts’ that the Sub-Sub assembles, and as such it’s therefore possible that we shouldn’t view Moby Dick so much as a novel, but rather as a book which contains a novel, alongside whale recipes and philosophy, and taxonomy, and a short story, and fragments of drama, and folklore, etc.

Anyway, I hope you’ll forgive this apparent point of pedantry – I just feel it’s really important to note that ‘Call me Ishmael’ isn’t the first line of Moby Dick.

In every other regard, thank you for continuing to produce enjoyable and informative programming. You’ve given me many years of joy, and I’m loving Sandi as the new host.

 
GuyBarry
1260076.  Tue Nov 07, 2017 7:38 am Reply with quote

Interesting. I haven't actually read Moby Dick, but what you're describing reminds me of people who misunderstand Lolita because they ignore the fictional foreword by "John Ray Jr., PhD", who claims to be the editor of the manuscript that makes up most of the book. (I think there are even some editions that omit it.)

 
Flash
1267161.  Sun Dec 17, 2017 5:23 pm Reply with quote

JRWB - I work on the TV show. I'm afraid I don't look at this bit of the forum as much as I should, but thanks for that snippet - that's a nice bit of General Ignorance, I would think.

 

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