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Monday, April 22, 2013

Does Herman Melville’s Moby Dick Covertly Allude to Jane Austen’s Emma?

Yesterday in Janeites, Michael Chwe, author of a wonderful new book about Jane Austen viewed through the lens of game theory, wrote in passing about Herman Melville's novel White Jacket, and I responded to him drawing a parallel between the use of color imagery in White Jacket and in Jane Austen's Persuasion, and wondering if there might be a connection.

In followup to that post, in which I also mentioned that I had noted a while ago that Moby Dick contained a allusion to the Prince of Whales (with an "H"), I followed up today to retrieve the reference, and I also refreshed my memory that I had also learned that Melville had been particularly interested in Charles Lamb's Triumph of the Whale, the satirical poem he published anonymously in 1812, hence Melville's echoing Lamb's pun.

Those who read along regularly in this blog know that Lamb's poem is one of the two key sources for Jane Austen's "Prince of Whales" secret answer to the second charade in Chapter 9 of Emma, as originally discovered by Colleen Sheehan in 2006:

So, with that as background, I reread the relevant passage in Moby Dick, Chapter 82, for the first time in several years, and my eyes widened a bit as I read the words I've capitalized from that passage, some of which I had not noticed before. For my brief interpretation of same, be sure to read to the end of this post:

The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter, was the first whaleman; and to the eternal honour of our calling be it said, that the first whale attacked by our brotherhood was not killed with any sordid intent. Those were the KNIGHTLY days of our profession, when we only bore arms to succor the distressed, and not to fill men's lamp-feeders. Every one knows the fine story of Perseus and Andromeda; how the lovely Andromeda, the daughter of a king, was tied to a rock on the sea-coast, and as LEVIATHAN was in the very act of carrying her off, Perseus, THE PRINCE OF WHALEMEN, intrepidly advancing, harpooned the monster, and delivered and married the MAID. It was an admirable artistic exploit, rarely achieved by the best harpooneers of the present day; inasmuch as this Leviathan was slain at the very first dart. And let no man doubt this Arkite story; for in the ancient Joppa, now Jaffa, on the Syrian coast, in one of the Pagan temples, there stood for many ages the vast skeleton of a whale, which the city's legends and all the inhabitants asserted to be the identical bones of the monster that Perseus slew. When the Romans took Joppa, the same skeleton was carried to Italy in triumph. What seems most singular and suggestively important in this story, is this: it was from Joppa that Jonah set sail.
Akin to the adventure of Perseus and Andromeda—indeed, by some supposed to be indirectly derived from it—is that famous story of ST. GEORGE and the Dragon; which dragon I maintain to have been a whale; for in many old chronicles whales and dragons are strangely jumbled together, and often stand for each other. "Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea," saith Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use that word itself. Besides, it would much subtract from the glory of the exploit had ST. GEORGES but encountered a crawling reptile of the land, instead of doing battle with the great monster of the deep. Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a ST. GEORGE, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale. Let not the modern paintings of this scene mislead us; for though the creature encountered by that valiant whaleman of old is vaguely represented of a griffin-like shape, and though the battle is depicted on land and THE SAINT ON HORSEBACK, yet considering the great ignorance of those times, when the true form of the whale was unknown to artists; and considering that as in Perseus' case, ST. GEORGE' whale might have crawled up out of the sea on the beach; and considering that the animal ridden by ST. GEORGES might have been only a large seal, or sea-HORSE; bearing all this in mind, it will not appear altogether incompatible with the sacred legend and the ancientest draughts of the scene, to hold this so-called dragon no other than the great LEVIATHAN himself. In fact, placed before the striand piercing truth, this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name; who being planted before the ark of Israel, his horse's head and both the palms of his hands fell off from him, and only the stump or fishy part of him remained. Thus, then, one of our own noble stamp, even a whaleman, is the tutelary guardian of England; and by good rights, we harpooneers of Nantucket should be enrolled in the most noble order of ST. GEORGES. And therefore let not the KNIGHTS of that honourable company (none of whom, I venture to say, have ever had to do with a whale like their great patron), let them never eye a Nantucketer with disdain, since even in our woollen frocks and tarred trowsers we are much better entitled to St. George's decoration than they."  END QUOTE

So, is it just a coincidence that Melville, in this one short passage, not only alludes in a variety of ways to Lamb's Triumph of the Whale, but also includes other verbiage that seems to point to Mr. GEORGE Knightley as well?

The most intriguing question is, did Melville discover that secret answer to the second charade in Emma, and then embed his discovery in the above passage, tagging it so that anyone else who also knew the whole context might (as I just did) decode his correct answer to the Emma charade? Or are all the echoes of Emma an artifact of Melville’s allusion to Lamb’s poem?

Food for thought (or whales)!

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