Chapter link: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/270 ... m#2HCH0003
The boggy, soggy, squitchy picture in the entrance to Mr. Coffin's welcoming though spare establishment, the Spouter Inn of New Bedford Massachussets, has some strange allegorical meaning. What could this besmoked defaced painting be? By diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, Ishmael looks for any way to arrive at an understanding of its purpose.
Perhaps New England hags had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched? And what was that long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture, with its indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity? By oath, Ishmael had to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Could it be the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time? Or maybe, maybe a whale?
Calling this smoky dark picture a portentous sublimity has perhaps a purpose, quietly introducing the main character. Ishmael shares with the curious reader "a final theory of his own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom he conversed upon the subject." Perhaps it is the exasperated fish, able to crush a sailing vessel with his very size.
Past the whale painting, an array of strange and rare flotsam includes a harpoon that entered a whale at the tail and was found in its neck after migrating a full forty feet like a needle in the flesh. Sounds painful.
The bar may have been an inspiration for Star Wars, manufactured from the head of a right whale and dispensing poison. A little withered old Jonah, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death in carefully made swindlers' tumblers. Bedarned and ragged, their beards stiff with icicles, the obstreperous whalers at the bar seemed an eruption of bears from Labrador.
So, when Mr. Coffin invites Ishmael to share the bed of a harpooner, there being no other room at the inn, it comes as no surprise that Ishmael made up his mind that "if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did". Shades of Mr. Churchill's famous deprecation about naval tradition. Who could this suspicious harpooner be? Mr. Churchill's comment rears again when Mr Coffin explains the harpooner is "out a peddling, you see, and I don't see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can't sell his head."
All of course is explained in a way that would avoid unwelcome enquiries from the censor, but you may wish to read the explanation yourself.
Ishmael examines the painting: http://www.timothyvermeulen.com/portfol ... terInn.jpg