“The Town-Ho’s Story,” Bulkington, and Moby-Dick’s “darker thread” of labor tension

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Those moments in Moby-Dick where Ishmael directly addresses the possibility of an uprising against Ahab may not account for the full extent of worker unrest aboard the Pequod. While Ishmael is ready to contemplate the officers and crew joining forces to restore the compact Ahab has breached in his usurpation of the ship's lawful purpose, he seems far less comfortable with the prospect of spontaneous revolutionary action on the part of the crew. This essay highlights subtle connections between the inset narrative of Steelkilt's mutiny in "The Town-Ho's Story" (ch. 54) and the frame narrative to suggest that Ishmael might be using the self-enclosed, safely distanced space of a separate ship to tease out a "darker thread" of labor tension in the Pequod's history. These connections also shed light on the shadowy member of Ahab's crew known as Bulkington, whose career aboard the Pequod is submerged in Ishmael's narration, but whose portrait offers striking parallels with Steelkilt's. By making Ishmael's coverage of labor conflict hesitant and uneven, Melville demonstrates how the egalitarian ideals of Jacksonian democracy made it difficult to acknowledge the reality of divided class interests in the United States.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2017

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