Having bought his freedom, ex-slave John Wood has started a new life as a ship’s carpenter on board a whaling vessel. Once at sea, the crew are imperilled by forces of nature in the form of the stormy waters and the mighty whales. But there are other powers at play – supernatural forces – which may just lend John and his crewmates the protection they need.
“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan” is a story steeped in myth – more specifically, in different types of myth which, rather than forming a mere backdrop, clash against each other like the ocean waves that toss and hurl the ship’s crew. The setting of a nineteenth-century whaling ship is, thanks to Moby-Dick, ingrained in the mythology of American literature. Images of whales and sailors also have Biblical connotations, something acknowledged by the story’s title. In more literal terms, the themes of myth and spirituality are also embodied by the differing religious perspectives of the characters.
The harpooner To’afa is a Christian so pious that his crewmates nickname him Gospel. Meanwhile, the cabin-boy Pip is a practitioner of Vodou, and in one scene draws a picture of Immamou – the boat of the dead sailed by the Vodou sea-spirit Agwé. Later, Pip apparently becomes possessed by Agwé, and promises protection to the crew of the vessel.
While the big picture is formed by the crew’s relationship with their surroundings, the finer details are made up of the characters’ relationships with one another. John pursues a homosexual coupling with crewmate William Harker, described in terms of fleshy tactility that contrast with the story’s spiritual aspects:
The sixth night out from Nantucket, John woke to find William Harker looming over him in the darkness. John sat bolt upright in his hammock. William put a calloused finger to John’s lips. William’s voice was silky. “I’ve been thinking it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve been ashore. Man can develop a thirst.”
John groaned, half in anticipated pleasure, half in exhaustion. “Not even a week yet. Ain’t your wenching last you a fortnight?”
William bent close to his ear. John could smell salt, armpits, ass. William’s breath was hot on his cheek. “T’aint wenches I’m after. I was hoping the ship’s carpenter might lend us some wood.” William put one big, scarred hand on John’s crotch.
John felt himself stir in response. “Captain’ll make you kiss his daughter if I’m too ill-rested to swing my hammer come daybreak.”
William put his other hand on John’s neck. “My harpoon will be all the keener for it, and I can give you practice with your hammer.”
Prejudice, as well as attraction, drives the characters’ relationships. The first mate is racist towards his black crewmates, while Gospel disapproves of Pip’s Vodou beliefs – and would feel similarly about John and William’s sexuality, were he to learn of it. “Careful”, says John to his lover. “You’ll get old Gospel to come over and give’s a sermon ‘bout the evils of sodomy, and I don’t know about you, but I prefer my sinnin’ in quiet” Moreover, John knows that this relationship would be scarcely more acceptable on land: “Ain’t no future for any negro and a white man in the goddamned Union ‘cept as a master and a slave.”
The combined forces of nature, supernature and human bigotry push the characters into almost totally passive roles, destined to be hunted down and burnt up like the whales they exploit. Almost, but not quite. In the story’s climax, as the ship is thrown by the sea and rammed by the whales, it is the smallest member of the crew who turns out to make all the difference. The ending has a touch of the fairy tale about it – and it makes satisfying conclusion to a story that invokes the myths of the sea.