Sudden realization

At the moment I had this thought, it seemed much more profound. Now I’m not sure what to make of it, but I still think it’s weird.

No one on the Pequod has more than one name!

What is that about?

It was Ahab that hit me first – I suddenly wondered what Ahab’s last name was. And then pondered for a minute whether Ahab might be his last name, but that seemed impossible. Ahab has to be his first name. Unless we just consider his first name to be “Captain.” Then there there are all the mates – Starbuck, Stubb, Flask. Those are much more like last names, and this seems confirmed by the fact that they’re sometimes called Mr. Starbuck, Mr. Stubb, etc. The harpooneers are more exotically one-named – Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo. The sense is that they come from cultures that don’t even give more than one name. And then there’s Ishmael, obviously, who is only called Ishmael. And there was my dear Bulkington.

Some of the characters onshore have first and last names. Or, at least, there’s definitely Peter Coffin, of the Spouter Inn, and Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots (though I think we only ever meet his wife). Otherwise, still kind of a dearth of extra names, what with Father Mapple, Elijah the prophet, and Captains Bildad and Peleg. Seth and I had a small disagreement over whether Bildad and Peleg are first or last names. He thought last, I think first. Pretty sure I’m right.  😉

So what’s up with that, Melville? Didn’t want to tax your imagination to come up with more names than you really needed? Ha ha.

Maybe the superfluity of first and last names would blur Melville’s intentions. Each name means something – maybe it would mean less, or too much, if it didn’t stand alone. “Call me Ishmael Jones” resounds very differently than “Call me Ishmael.” What other name could Ahab possibly have than Ahab?

Also, because I’m reading King Lear at the moment too, as well as Charles Olson’s argument about Lear‘s influence on Moby-Dick, it struck me that Shakespeare never gives last names. King Lear is just King Lear – and then just Lear. The Fool is the Fool – what name would he need? Disguises and false names Shakespeare may give, but never extra names.


3 thoughts on “Sudden realization

  1. Very interesting- I had never realized that Shakespeare too, only gives one name to each character. I think you are right- it would definately be more formal, and change the effect if we were to call everyone by their full names… Calling someone “Marcus Caius Quintus Scaepula” does sound more formal than simply “Marcus” : )

  2. Interesting. I never thought about it. I really thought and assumed that Ahab was the captain’s last name, same for Stubbs and Starbuck. I also assumed that Queequeq, Tashteego and Daggoo were first names. I’m not sure why. I definitely liked having only one name per character. Much less confusing than in a book like Anna Karenina, where characters each have several names and a nickname and Tolstoy decided to name two main characters the same name. Melville did a better job in that department as far as I’m concerned.

    • It’s funny – I was thinking about Anna Karenina too! Someone, though I can’t now remember who, wrote about reading AK for the first time, and remarked that the names in particular made the book seem realistic, precisely because two of the main characters have the same name. But then I don’t think realism was exactly Melville’s first concern….

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