Steelkilt

“‘Mr. Radney, I will not obey you. Take that hammer away, or look to yourself.’ But the predestinated mate coming still closer to him, where the Lakeman stood fixed, now shook the heavy hammer within an inch of his teeth; meanwhile repeating a string of insufferable maledictions. Retreating not the thousandth part of an inch; stabbing him in the eye with the unflinching poniard of his glance, Steelkilt, clenching his right hand behind him and creepingly drawing it back, told his persecutor that if the hammer but grazed his cheek he (Steelkilt) would murder him. But, gentlemen, the fool had been branded for the slaughter by the gods. Immediately the hammer touched the cheek; the next instant the lower jaw of the mate was stove in his head; he fell on the hatch spouting blood like a whale.”

—The Town-Ho’s Story

Harpooneer. One of five sailors who never set foot aboard the Pequod, the drama of Steelkilt is related in Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story. This chapter serves several functions within the overall structure of Moby-Dick: one, it is a gammed story (a story related to the sailors aboard the Pequod by the men of another ship met at sea, the Town-Ho) told in great detail, of a typical encounter with the god-whale Moby Dick, located almost exactly in the middle of the greater novel. Second, it reveals the characterization of an archetypical sailor, a tyro, in the schema and setting of the narrative in which we currently reside. This more subtle significance is brought out more clearly when Steelkilt is examined side by side with Billy Budd, known by many shipmates as The Handsome Sailor, and another sailor who never set foot aboard the Pequod, one who resides in his own unfinished novella, written around 40 years after Moby-Dick was published.

The drama of Steelkilt matches the drama of Billy Budd in its antagonists: Radney, a sour-faced, craven mate aboard the whaleship Town-Ho in the case of Steelkilt, and Claggart the envious Master aboard the British warship Bellipotent, in the case of Billy Budd. While both men strike out against their oppressors, the disparate reactions to the reprisals of their superiors is what brings out the difference between Steelkilt and Billy Budd—Steelkilt is an Übermensch of sorts, both representing an existential anti-hero who cannot be controlled (Steelkilt leads a somewhat successful mutiny aboard the Town-Ho), as well as an advocate in the court of Moby Dick—a man playing with the primordial truths of Nature to achieve his own freedom, a man after Ahab’s heart—passing judgment on the envious hearts of lesser men. The Handsome Sailor, on a radically different spiritual tack, submits himself to his commanders’ ultimate will, immediately after enacting his own by striking down the envious superior, and absorbs the punishment of the world, redeeming the sins of the man he struck down, his shipmates, indeed all humanity. What kind of worldview does this man represent? Melville struggled with Christianity, struggled with the society around him, struggled with himself. Charles Olson reads Billy Budd and despairs—it is the work of a dying man, a man who has lost the battle he imposed upon himself and is trying desperately to make a peace with himself, accept Christ, etc., etc…[1]

Steelkilt cannot be bribed—he above all others goes where he pleases, and stays where he finds it most comfortable. He possesses no active abilities, but there is some deeper, darker power here that draws a player to this ruffian, this desperado Lakeman, this anti-Christ.

(see The Handsome Sailor)

Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.


[1] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (San Francisco: City Lights, 1947), 103.

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