Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

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Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

  • Ishmael enters the Spouter-Inn, and—symbolism alert!—the first thing he sees is a strange oil painting so old and dirty that it seems abstract.
  • Ishmael spends a long time looking at this painting trying to figure out what it depicts. (Think of it as a Rorschach Test for our intrepid protagonist.)
  • He eventually decides that it represents a ship in a storm and a whale leaping up to fling itself on the ship. Hmm, why do you think he came up with that?
  • When Ishmael looks around the rest of the inn, he sees, displayed on the walls, "a heathenish array" (3.4) of weapons, mostly harpoons and lances from whaling ships or weapons from distant countries.
  • Ishmael goes further into the inn, noticing that the low ceiling, visible beams, and plank floor almost make the inn itself seem like a ship. The doorway between the public room and the bar is decorated with a giant whale’s jawbone.
  • Ishmael heads into the bar, where, he notes, the barman is selling drinks using trick glasses that make it look like you’re getting more for your money than you really are.
  • There are several different seamen at the bar, and Ishmael finds the landlord and asks for a room.
  • Unfortunately, the inn is full, but the landlord offers to let Ishmael share a bed with a harpooner. (Sharing a bed with someone at a crowded inn was actually pretty common in this time.)
  • Ishmael hems and haws; he doesn’t really want to share a bed, but he also doesn’t want to go back out into the cold and look for somewhere else. He reluctantly agrees.
  • After a short wait, Ishmael and some other patrons of the inn have supper in another room.
  • At dinner, Ishmael learns that the harpooner with whom he’s going to share a bed isn’t there yet and is "a dark complexioned chap" (3.14), which makes him a little suspicious. Racism!
  • After supper, everyone goes back into the bar, where Ishmael waits for the harpooneer and does some casual people-watching.
  • There’s a loud, raucous noise outside. Enter a bunch of men from a ship called the Grampus (which is, incidentally, also an old name for the "orca," or killer whale—like Shamu), which has just come back from a four-year voyage to the Fiji Islands.
  • They start doing some hard-core drinking and partying while Ishmael watches.
  • Ishmael notices that one of the men is a little mellower than the others.
  • This guy (whose name, we learn, is Bulkington), is tall and broad, deeply tanned, and Southern. He slips away in the middle of the party.
  • When Bulkington’s shipmates notice, they go after him.
  • The inn quiets again. Ishmael has decided that he doesn’t want to share a bed with anyone and that he’s going to sleep on the bench at the bar.
  • The landlord takes a carpenter’s plane (a hand tool used to scrape wood until it’s flat) and tries to level out the bench a bit, but it has so many knots that he can’t really do anything with it.
  • Ishmael tells him not to bother, and the landlord leaves, grinning.
  • Ishmael realizes that the bench is too narrow and too short; he supplements it with a chair and tries to sleep using the wall to support himself, but he’s really cold and uncomfortable.
  • Ishmael considers taking the harpooneer’s room and locking him out, but rejects the idea because the guy might wait outside for him and beat him up the next day.
  • Finally Ishmael decides that sleeping with the harpooneer might be okay after all.
  • He calls the landlord and asks why the harpooneer isn’t back yet—it’s midnight at this point.
  • The landlord explains that the harpooneer isn’t back because he’s been out trying to sell his head, but can’t because the market is flooded with them, and the one he has is broken.
  • Ishmael gets angry and thinks the landlord is making fun of him by telling some weird nonsense story.
  • The landlord tries to calm Ishmael down and explains that the harpooneer had a bunch of embalmed human heads from New Zealand.
  • The harpooneer, the landlord explains, has been selling them all over town during the last week, but the last one of the bunch is cracked and he wanted to sell it by today (Saturday).
  • After all, it would be pretty bad to sell a shrunken head on the Sabbath, wouldn’t it?
  • Ishmael doesn’t really feel any better about his situation after hearing this story (a shrunken head: gulp), but he agrees to follow the landlord upstairs to the harpooneer’s bed.
  • The landlord leaves Ishmael alone in the room, and Ishmael snoops around in the harpooneer’s things a little bit—he even tries on a weird poncho made of quills.
  • Ishmael slowly undresses and eventually has to get into bed because he’s so cold.
  • He sleeps restlessly for a little bit.
  • The harpooneer comes back, carrying a lantern in one hand and, yes, an embalmed head in the other.
  • Ishmael lies still and quiet, watching the harpooneer get ready for bed.
  • He’s startled to see the harpooneer’s face, because the man is not only dark-skinned but tattooed all over.
  • When the man takes off his hat, it turns out that he’s bald (or at least has a shaved head).
  • He also has a hatchet-like weapon that Ishmael thinks of as a tomahawk.
  • Ishmael’s really afraid of the man and considers trying to sneak out. He realizes, however, that he’s mostly afraid because he doesn’t understand the guy, and stays where he is.
  • The harpooneer keeps undressing as Ishmael watches.
  • Every part of his body is covered in the same checkerboard-pattern tattoos. Ishmael seems to really enjoy watching him undress, even though he’s afraid.
  • Next, the harpooneer takes out a wooden statue, puts it above the hearth, and makes an offering of heated biscuit to the statue while singing and chanting.
  • Then he puts the statue away without much fuss.
  • Ishmael tries to speak, but can’t.
  • The man takes his "tomahawk," lights the end of it, and puts it in his mouth; apparently it’s also a pipe. Then he puts out the light and gets into bed, still smoking.
  • Ishmael yelps and rolls away from the man.
  • The harpooneer notices him and starts demanding who he is.
  • Ishmael calls for the landlord.
  • The landlord, Peter Coffin, comes and calms them both down.
  • He explains to the harpooneer, whose name is Queequeg, that the two men need to share a bed because the inn is full.
  • Queequeg is very understanding and offers Ishmael his place in the bed back.
  • Ishmael is charmed by Queequeg’s good manners and gets back in bed—on the condition that Queequeg not smoke, because it’s a fire hazard. Fair enough.
  • Queequeg agrees and they go to sleep.

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