When stripping a whale of its blubber, one of the ship’s harpooneers must go overboard to attend the finer points of the operation. Standing on a slippery whale’s back in rolling ocean waters is no easy (or safe) feat, especially with an ever-present swarm of sharks snapping at the carcass on which he stands. The harpooneer generally receives two protections in the course of his labor. For one, the other harpooneers stand above him with sharp cutting spades, killing or maiming as many of the sharks around him as possible. For the other, he is stabilized by a fellow crew-mate with a rope tied to his belt.
In “The Monkey-rope,” Ishmael finds himself in a uniquely perilous variation of this practice. On the Pequod, Stubb demands that the monkey-rope be tied to the crew-mate on deck as well as the harpooneer overboard. In this case, Ishmael tends to Queequeg, knowing that “should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.” In short, Stubb increases the security of the harpooneer by marrying his fate to the fate of the party responsible for him. The practice encourages (requires) the attendant crew-mate to do the moral and just thing by removing his ability to do otherwise.
Interestingly, at the end of the chapter, Stubb revolts against a similar move pulled by Aunt Charity — Bildad’s sister, who provisioned the Pequod before its voyage. Encouraging (requiring) temperance by removing access to alcohol, Charity deems to make a moral crew. When Queequeg returns to the deck after a long and hard labor, shivering with the cold of the sea, the steward brings him a warm ginger tea, as provisioned for the task by Charity. Sensing “some sneaking Temperance Society movement about this business,” Stubb overrides Charity’s restrictions by fetching the alcohol himself.
“The Monkey-rope” raises interesting questions of law and custom. Societies perhaps need laws and restrictions to set an accountably moral tone, but at what point do laws actually inhibit man’s moral development by inhibiting his choice? Can an act be moral if the actor has no choice to do otherwise?
Chapter 72: The Monkey-rope
Cannibals, cutting spades, sharks snapping free,
All tossed in the sea
With Queequeg and me.
Great consternation aloft and between,
Begun at the scene
And taken to mean
That islands exist only in our dreams,
And Fate can’t prevent a slip.
Think it insurance, the danger is spread
To many a head,
And thus was I wed.
A monkey-rope fashioned and tied to my belt,
And tied to his belt,
By none and by all simultaneously,
We feel one another’s slips.
Stubb instituted this perilous plot
To rally our lot,
Though moral or not,
Just as Aunt Charity’s temperance would do,
But false institutions never lent
To our betterment.
We’re tied by the bonds of men
The one at the risk of ten.
(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 12, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea July 5, 2011