“The Mat-Maker” begins with one of those dreamy moments where the monotony of daily routine aboard the Pequod gives Ishmael an opportunity for philosophical contemplation. There is a sense of foreboding in the air, as if this lull were simply the prelude to something else.

Ishmael and Queequeg are engaged in weaving a sword-mat, which will be used to provide some extra padding in their whaleboat. Here is Ishmael description of their chore:

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn …

To understand Ishmael’s description, we need to remember that the “warp” are the “longitudinal” threads in weaving, usually affixed to to two bars. The “filling or woof” is passed at a right angle through every other strand of warp, thus creating a weave. The “shuttle” is a piece of wood around which the yarn or string of the filling is wound and from which it is dispensed as it is woven into into the “warp.” The “sword,” which gives this kind of mat its name, is then used to push the strings of the filling close together. The illustrations below are taken from the Text-Book of Seamanship (1891) by Commodore S. B. Luce of the U.S. Navy (available online here):

Here is the text that accompanies them:

At a distance apart, equal to the length of the mat, sling a couple of bars in a horizontal position. Hitch one end of the warp to the bar at the end on which you intend to terminate the mat; take up the comb, which is made of a wood perforated with holes and slits alternately, Fig. 185, reeve the other end through the first hole, over and under the bar at which you intend to begin, back through the first slit, under and over the other bar; and so wind off as many parts as are required for the breadth of the mat, the last turn being rove through a slit, and secured to the bar at which you finish off, Fig. 186. This done, lift the loom up, middle the filling, and lay it  between the upper and under parts; then lower the loom, and the parts that were lowermost will rise in the slits, become the uppermost, and thus put a cross in the warp. Next put the sword, made of hard wood in the shape of a knife, in between the upper and under parts, and drive the crossing close up towards the bar, and harden it well up, Fig. 187; then pass a turn of filling to secure the crossing, reeving the ends through contrary ways, haul it taut, take out the sword, lift the loom up, and go on again. When you come to the last turn of filling, half-knot it with two turns.

Given ample time for contemplation, Ishmael cannot help but see in their activity an allegory of the constraints placed on human agency:

I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance — aye, chance, free will, and necessity — no wise incompatible — all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course — its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.

The warp is “necessity,” because its straight lines are fixed in place; the “filling” is the destiny of each individual, woven into the threads of necessity; and the sword is “chance,” forced to move along the lines of necessity, varying a little from side to side due to the action of free, and thereby creating a distinctive texture in the mat, which will not be completely uniform.

We’ll see other examples of this kind of philosophizing occasioned by labor in “The Line” and “A Squeeze of the Hand.”

And then the philosophical reverie is interrupted by a cry from the masthead: “There she blows!” The first whale is spied, and in the next chapter the whaleboats are lowered for the first time. The hunt will be on.

Take heed, however, of the enigmatic sentences that conclude the present chapter: “But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.” The source of “the low laugh from the hold” is revealed, as Elijah’s prophecy begins to take palpable shape.

“The Mat-Maker” is read by Steve Carroll and illustrated with four photographs by Jeremy Millar, the first of which appears above. Visit the “Big Read” site to see the entire collection, which is entitled Whales.

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[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]