A Moby Dick Pro-leg-omenon (But which?)
February 19, 2024 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Captain Ahab’s ivory leg, carved from the jawbone of a whale, stands as one of the most iconic pieces of imagery in all of literature. Draw a man with a peg leg next to whale and he’s instantly recognizable as Ahab, as is the general idea of what happened to the leg and the less than amicable relationship he has with that whale. It’s all in the leg; and the leg tells the whole story. Which is why it’s so maddening, so confounding, that although Melville provides the minutest details about every last person, animal, and object in Moby-Dick, he fails to tell us which leg Ahab is missing. from Ahab's Leg Dilemma: Part 1, Part 2
posted by chavenet (52 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The answer is obvious: “he has one knee, and good part of the other left”. One’s “other left” is, of course, one’s right.

(I’m being facetious, but it does at least comport with the other theories!)
posted by jedicus at 2:56 PM on February 19 [16 favorites]

That was certainly an exercise in extremely close-reading.
posted by mittens at 3:03 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Oh come on, it’s his penis!
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:14 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

Should I ever ditch this username, Practical Ahabology seems a good handle.
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:21 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

"I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith."
"What was the name of his other leg?"
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:22 PM on February 19 [22 favorites]

Oh come on, it’s his penis!

Assigned Hambone At Birth
posted by chavenet at 3:41 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

Marty Feldman voice: "What hump?"
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 3:41 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

Ahab was missing his right leg, and the narrator's actual name was Marty Dickbuckle. Finally, the remaining questions have been lain to rest
posted by phooky at 3:42 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Ahab has one leg left, therefore his right leg is the peg leg. However he has one leg that is short and the other is alright, therefore his peg leg must be the left one.
posted by interogative mood at 4:17 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

My own personal Moby Dick mystery is, "What are old-fashioned wainscots from the perspective of 1850?"
posted by betaray at 4:31 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

I should re-read Moby Dick as an adult. I read it when I was 16 as the first part of a spiral curriculum in high school, and haven't revisited it since.
posted by hippybear at 4:34 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

FYI there is a great free unabridged version on Libravox.
posted by interogative mood at 4:36 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

One is a loose-leg, the other is a fast-leg. Ahab is an opening bowler for the Nantucket XI.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:37 PM on February 19 [9 favorites]

I still have the actual book I read in high school. And yes, unabridged. The abridged editions cut out all the whale parts, just like the abridged editions of Les Miz cut out all the Paris history parts.
posted by hippybear at 4:41 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

hippybear, I highly recommend it. Just re-read it last summer/fall at the ripe age of TKTKTK and I realized how much of it was lost on me reading it as a young'n. There's just so much in there that you can't appreciate if you haven't fought 20,123 fruitless battles and tilted at countless windmills (yeah, mixing metaphors, whatever).
posted by General Malaise at 4:44 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

tilted at countless windmills

I do have a new translation of Don Quixote which I've started maybe 10 times but never gotten very far through. Maybe Ahab, being more recent in imagination, will lure me into engaging fully.
posted by hippybear at 4:46 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

it's left leg as peg leg, because Hawthorne
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:38 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

Huh; Ahab is the solution to a puzzle I came across this weekend.
posted by TedW at 5:44 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Moby-Dick is an amazing book, so much not the book many think it is. A few months ago I was telling a colleague they should read it , and I said “open it at random”; here is the passage they turned to:

“ Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from that same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates”
posted by librosegretti at 5:51 PM on February 19 [29 favorites]

Captain Ahab’s ivory leg, carved from the jawbone of a whale...

If it's carved from a jawbone, it's Bone; Ivory is from a Tooth. If it's from a Sperm Whale tooth, it's less than a foot long.

But it could be a composite Leg from various whale teeth glued together, of course. Sperm Whale teeth are hollow, so they could have ground them all up in a blender, added some glue, then put it in a nice peg-leg mould.
posted by ovvl at 6:07 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

If it's carved from a jawbone, it's Bone; Ivory is from a Tooth.

Melville is very slippery about categories. He spends a full chapter arguing that whales are fish.

Melville knows that whales are not fish. Doesn't he?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:24 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

(hippybear, if it's edith grossman's translation of don quixote i can say it's well worth spending more time with--much like moby dick it's a book that you would swear was written in our current postmodern metatextual overthinky days, except, y'know, much more fun than that sounds.)
posted by mittens at 6:44 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

Whales are generally fish in much the same way centipedes are bugs. Even though they are not Hemipterans.

But fish don't really exist as a neat biological category anyway, insofar as any clade that includes bony fish also includes us and all the other tetrapods. But in that light, whales are most definitely technically fishes!
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:49 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

The range of animals classified as fish is such that whales could be called both mammals and fish. Stephen J. Gould argued there is no such thing as fish.. Under British law whales are royal fish belonging to the king. Just as the US Supreme Court says tomatoes are a vegetable.
posted by interogative mood at 6:53 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Last week I finished Moby Dick, it is an amazing book! I learned so many good words, word associations from overlapping etymologies, word forms that aren't in use anymore. And funny! Melville has an amazing way with words, I've been especially quoting from his Nantucket description and the sermon to the sharks. Also, from the first chapter, the "dreary November of the soul". That is a phrase that resonates!

I always pictured Ahab with a left peg leg, but have no particular reason for that, I suppose. Also, another bit unexplained - why is the whale called Moby Dick? Everyone else knows him as the white whale, why does Ahab have a name for him?

New Bedford, Mass, has an annual event in January, including a read-aloud marathon of the book, and various speakers and such. I would like to attend some time! I grew up visiting all sciencey museums in reach, and on the Oregon coast that included a number of maritime museums, with their whaling exhibits. It's not an industry that has any interest to me in this modern age, but the history is fascinating.
posted by dorey_oh at 7:52 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

The origin of the name Moby-Dick

“ The name of Melville's most famous creation was suggested by an article by Jeremiah Reynolds, published in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine in May 1839. Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific recounted the capture of a giant white sperm whale that had become infamous among whalers for its violent attacks on ships and their crews. The meaning of the name itself is quite simple: the whale was often sighted in the vicinity of the island of Mocha, and "Dick" was merely a generic name like "Jack" or "Tom.””
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:39 PM on February 19 [11 favorites]

Thanks, MonkeyToes! I had been meaning to look up the name! Still seems odd that is isn't covered in the book - Melville spends whole chapters on all sorts of other bits of whaling info, but nothing about the name of the main character!
posted by dorey_oh at 8:43 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite books! I highly recommend the book 'Ahab's Rolling Sea' as a companion book as I have done before. It lays out the Natural History of the time, what was known then about seefaring, the ocean, navigation and so forth. Its a great book!

As for Ahab's leg, I have my own addition:

In Melville's book OMOO, the following passage occurs:
It must be known here, by the bye, that the cooper had a true sailor admiration for Lord Nelson. But he entertained a very erroneous idea of the personal appearance of the hero. Not content with depriving him of an eye and an arm, he stoutly maintained that he had also lost a leg in one of his battles. Under this impression, he sometimes hopped up to Dunk with one leg curiously locked behind him into his right arm, at the same time closing an eye.
So Melville had imagined a hero before a captain who had lost a leg and so one supposes that he would imagine it the same way when writing Moby Dick. The right arm is holding up the fake missing leg. But this doesn't actually help. I can put either of my legs behind my back and hold it up with my right arm. Frustrating, as if it doesn't really matter to Melville.

There's a famous leg injury in the novel Typee too but no mention of which leg it is.

In the novel The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter we do have a left leg injury but thats not so compelling:
in this retreat I was less fortunate than many of my comrades—I received two musket ball wounds, one in my hip and the other near the ankle of my left leg—I succeeded however without any assistance in reaching Prospect Hill,
posted by vacapinta at 4:24 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

I am two-thirds of the way through, having intended and failed to complete the book in sync with the Defector Reads a Book folks. But as opposed to a lot of required reading where I drag ass because It Is A Classic and it doesn’t hold my interest, the thing with Moby Dick is that it fucking rules and I want to savor every second of it. It winds up not being something I want to read as I’m falling asleep (though I often do crack it open right before bed) because I want to come to it with full command of my faculties.

But also: it is funny as hell. And not in the way of a lot of classic books, where you have to fight the language and the idiom to get at the core of the humor; Ishmael is a gregarious narrator who is telling you all of this with a twinkle in his eye, like, “can you believe this shit?” There is definitely an element of the fish tale in here. Dost thou believe in the white whale? I dost.
posted by thecaddy at 4:40 AM on February 20 [9 favorites]

It’s one of my favorite books, and well worth the read. (I quite enjoyed Don Quixote as well but really the second novel didn’t hold up as well as the first…)
posted by caution live frogs at 5:24 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Oh come on, it’s his penis!

Isn't it pretty to think so.
posted by Billiken at 6:26 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

It's clear from this article that the leg is actually a plate of beans.
posted by goatdog at 6:48 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]

ChatGPT 4 told me it was Ahab’s left leg. When I asked it to explain how it knows it said:
I can't directly quote the specific passage from "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville that states Captain Ahab's left leg is the one he lost to Moby Dick without the text in front of me, as my responses are generated based on a mixture of licensed data, data created by human trainers, and publicly available information. However, Melville's novel is rich in detailed descriptions, and throughout the narrative, there are references to Ahab's missing leg and his use of a prosthetic made from a whale's jawbone. The detail that it is his left leg might be inferred from the context of his interactions, the description of his movements, or specific mentions in the text. For the exact passage, I recommend consulting a copy of "Moby Dick," where the description of Ahab's character and his physical condition will be found in more detail.

posted by interogative mood at 8:44 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]

I have read Moby Dick 6 times. I have always assumed the Ahab's peg leg is on the same side of his body as the long white scar that runs down his face (and possible his body). I always thought Ahab stood trapped between two worlds; the rational world of man and the primal, pure chaos of Nature that refuses to accede to humanity's domination.
posted by KingEdRa at 9:04 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

There's also an absolutely wonderful audio version of the book that was part of the University of Plymouth's Big Read series with individual chapters read by a different person. It included both celebrities/artists/politicians (Tilda Swinton, Neil Tennant, Nathaniel Philbrick, Stephen Fry, David Cameron, etc) and, more wonderfully, non-celebrities from all different walks of life, reading the text in their local dialect. It's become my favorite way to reread the story.
posted by KingEdRa at 9:16 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

Rosebud was actually the name of his peg-leg.
posted by robotmachine at 10:46 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

It was his hind leg.
posted by neuron at 12:16 PM on February 20 [6 favorites]

Does the book ever specify that Ahab is not a three-legged centaur?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:04 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

chavenet, whatever side you like, really.
posted by KingEdRa at 8:19 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Moby-Dick is an amazing book, so much not the book many think it is. A few months ago I was telling a colleague they should read it , and I said “open it at random”; here is the passage they turned to:

I kill time by opening it at random while standing in line or waiting on a thing now and then, and I highlighted this on my phone edition after stumbling upon it. I don’t have it quite committed to memory, but it is indelibly impressed on my soul:

“Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.”

That’s some prose.

Anyway, leg. I had no idea Ahabology would have gone that far down this rabbit hole, but I am impressed. I’ve only read it through thoroughly twice, with occasional jaunts into favorite chapters, like the sermon, but never once did it occur to me I did not know which leg had been afflicted. This will no doubt now commence to trouble and confound me the rest of my days.

Also, I only have 2 measly editions, one of which is illustrated, and it’s in the other room. I doubt by tomorrow morning that I’ll remember to go peruse them for leggedness. I did thoroughly enjoy these posts, though.

posted by Devils Rancher at 9:00 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]

if it's edith grossman's translation of don quixote i can say it's well worth spending more time with

Off subject I know, but I strongly concur. It was fantastic.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:04 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

You guys have convinced me to start reading both Moby-Dick and Grossman's translation of Don Quixote at last, dammit. (If not now, when?) I picked up the latter years ago, but it's dauntingly thick... but a bit less daunting when you look at it as two books in one volume, as the two parts were written ten years apart.

As for Moby-Dick, Project Gutenberg provides, and the great thing about ebooks on a Kindle is that you can proceed a page at a time without being constantly aware of how many lie ahead; then, before you know it, you're done.
posted by rory at 2:46 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

I find the character of Bulkington fascinating and one of the keys to the novel. There are many keys, though. Pip is the small, black, cabin boy but he is also the one that manages to gaze into Eternity itself, into the 'howling infinite':
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.
Both characters are central to the Existentialist readings of the book such as this one that I love from Hubert Dreyfus.
posted by vacapinta at 8:15 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]

For fun, I too tried to get Chat GPT to answer the question. Three times, it quoted a passage from Chapter 132 and claimed that text said it was his right leg. But the passage it quotes doesn't mention the leg at all. Only when I asked if Chat were hallucinating, and challenging it to defend its answer, did it come back with: You are correct, and I apologize for the oversight in my previous responses. The passages I provided do not explicitly mention which of Captain Ahab's legs was bitten off by the white whale. The novel does not explicitly state which leg was lost. The information regarding the specific leg that was lost by Ahab may not be explicitly mentioned in the text, and readers may infer it from other parts of the story or supplementary materials, but it is not explicitly stated by the author. Therefore, I cannot definitively determine which leg was bitten off by the white whale based solely on the text of "Moby-Dick."
posted by beagle at 4:52 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]

I just started reading Moby Dick last week! I'm subscribed to Whale Weekly, which is inspired by Dracula Daily, it's a project to post in real time. So it starts in late November and they lost a few chapters a week, for a year and change now. Since I didn't start reading a year ago in November I've been playing catch up. It is really funny, and it reads like something like that was originally serialized so it's very easy to read a chapter at a time, so far each chapter is always centered around just one thing (Ismael checks into his hotel, etc), sometimes with more or less spit balling around that topic.
posted by subdee at 8:17 AM on February 22 [2 favorites]

It was people saying how funny it was that got me started, and so far: yes!
posted by rory at 8:30 AM on February 22 [3 favorites]

> Despite the best efforts of several scholars before me, I couldn’t help but wonder: isn’t there something in the text that suggests which leg Ahab lost to Moby Dick?

Jumping in with my own answer to this:

> Chapter 34: It is noon; and Dough-Boy, the steward, thrusting his pale loaf-of-bread face from the cabin-scuttle, announces dinner to his lord and master; who, sitting in the lee quarter-boat, has just been taking an observation of the sun; and is now mutely reckoning the latitude on the smooth, medallion-shaped tablet, reserved for that daily purpose on the upper part of his ivory leg.

Two assumptions:

- Ahab wrote with his right hand (only 2% wrote left-handed in the 1800s, according to this)

- By "the upper part of his ivory leg," Melville means, towards the top of the ivory part, which is just below Ahab's knee. (If he instead means "the upper part of the leg [ie, the thigh] which has the ivory part below the knee" then my theory is kaput. That is in fact where pilots and such usually keep a clipboard strapped. But I think that is a strained interpretation of what Melville says about Ahab above. I clearly wants the writing surface to be attached directly to the ivory leg - not just near to it.)

Given both of those assumptions, I would say it is more likely that the ivory leg was the left.

That is because if you strap a flat surface on the leg at that point - just below the knee - and then cross that leg over the opposite knee so that you can easily write and do calculations on that surface, it is definitely easier and more natural for the writing surface to be on the left leg, and distinctly awkward if it is on the right leg.

On the left leg, the writing surface is angle just perfectly for writing with the right hand, with the left ankle resting on the right knew.

On the right leg, similarly situated, the writing surface is angled awkwardly away from the writing implement in the right hand.

Here is an illustration with legs crossed in this way. Imagine writing on the right leg, just below the knee, with the right hand. Awkward. Now switch the legs - convenient.

I'd say this is evidence, not 100% conclusive but reasonably persuasive, that the ivory leg was the left.
posted by flug at 9:21 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]

Having sat in various small boats, I would find it harder to keep my balance with one leg crossed over the other (versus having both feet planted solidly and spread about shoulder width apart). My natural inclination would be to have any writing surface on my thigh on my writing-hand-side. I suppose a much more seasoned sailor would be able to balance through the normal roll of average waves with one leg crossed over, but it’s still a position that leaves one quite vulnerable should any expectedly large waves jolt the boat.
posted by eviemath at 11:06 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]

I'll throw in another after perusing the text again.

CHAPTER 81. The Pequod Meets The Virgin.

The two boats are chasing after a pod of whales. But one whale in particular stands out.
Full in this rapid wake, and many fathoms in the rear, swam a huge,
humped old bull, which by his comparatively slow progress, as well as
by the unusual yellowish incrustations overgrowing him, seemed
afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity. Whether this
whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is
not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social.
Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake, though indeed their back water
must have retarded him, because the white-bone or swell at his broad
muzzle was a dashed one, like the swell formed when two hostile
currents meet. His spout was short, slow, and laborious; coming forth
with a choking sort of gush, and spending itself in torn shreds,
followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to
have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind
him to upbubble.
But, wait there's something else strange about this whale. It is missing a fin!
He has an "unnatural stump" where one of his fins should be. Is this an allegory of Ahab? If so, shouldn't he be missing the same "leg"? Does the author tell us which fin is missing? Yes, he does.
As an overladen Indiaman bearing down the Hindostan coast with a deck
load of frightened horses, careens, buries, rolls, and wallows on her
way; so did this old whale heave his aged bulk, and now and then partly
turning over on his cumbrous rib-ends, expose the cause of his devious
wake in the unnatural stump of his starboard fin. Whether he had lost
that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say.
There you go. The "starboard" fin or right fin, or right leg. Q.E.D
posted by vacapinta at 8:10 AM on March 1 [3 favorites]

Ahab, mirrored in that damaged whale? Right fin = left leg.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:36 PM on March 1

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