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‘The Slave’
Under a Troubled Master-Eye #8: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 34
The Cabin Table
“It is noon; and Dough-Boy, [1] the steward, thrusting his pale loaf-of-bread face from the cabin-scuttle, announces dinner to his lord and master; who sitting in the lee quarter-boat, has just taken an observation of the sun; and is now mutely reckoning the latitude on the smooth, medallion-shaped tablet, reserved for that daily purpose on the upper part of his ivory leg…you would that moody Ahab had not heard his menial.”
The captain then calls the first mate, Starbuck, who calls the second, Stubb who calls the third, Flask, who is last to enter the tiny space and must leave when the first to enter leaves due to crowding, a situation designed to render the third mate into his own singular underclass:
“…independent, hilarious little Flask enters King Ahab’s presence, in the character of Abjectus, or the Slave.”
With Ahab sitting for two dinners, one with the mates than another with the harpooners, he sits enthroned and Flask perches half-fed end alone.
“…if it were so that any mere sailor of the Pequod had a grudge against Flask in Flask’s official capacity, all that sailor had to do, in order to obtain ample vengeance, was to go aft at dinner-time, and get a peep at Flask through the cabin skylight, sitting silly and dumbfounded before awful Ahab.
The feeding of the harpooners is far different and falls like a shadow upon the Slave:
“…naturally a very nervous, shuddering sort of little fellow, this broad-faced steward; the progeny of a bankrupt baker and a hospital nurse…Alas! Dough-Boy! Hard fares the white waiter who waits upon cannibals.”
“They dined like lords… Such portentous appetites had Queequeg [the Polynesian] and Tashtego [the Amerindian]…Tashtego had an ungentlemanly way of accelerating him [Dough-Boy] by darting a fork at his back, harpoon-wise. And once Dagoo [the African], seized with a sudden humor, assisted dough-Boy’s memory by snatching him up bodily, and thrusting his head into a trencher, while Tashtego, knife in hand, began laying out the circle preliminary to scalping him.”
Ishmael goes on to detail the unchristen aspect of Ahab, man seemingly of a bestial age, as he gloomily encouraged the heroics and cruelty of choice savages of other races and at the same time demanded the utmost slavish obedience from the civilized souls of his own race.
Ahab seems to represent the very predatory corporate entity of modern government and industry even as its very nasty nature demands the mirror image of meek passivity from its functionaries and excuses the excesses of those alien to its innards.
Notes
-1. In period English just going out of usage as this was written Dough-Boy meant “Bread-Slave.
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