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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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4.8 How Juxtaposition Makes Silence Powerful: Silent Women in the “Separation Scene” in John Huston’s 'Moby-Dick'

The theme of this path is juxtaposition and continuities in a text on the one hand, and gaps and silences in the text on the other. We can ask whether the juxtaposition of silence with non-silence gives voice to those who are silent. Alternatively, we can ask what juxtapositions of ideas and imaginings can silence itself create.

A close reading of The Separation Scene in the 1956 movie version of Moby Dick, directed by John Huston, reveals “the expressive possibilities” of juxtaposition with regard to the silent. Keep in mind that this moment -- the Pequod sailing off -- was also deployed by Sena Jeter Naslund in Ahab's Wife.

Feminist critics have expressed concern about the absence of female characters in Melville's novels. Director John Huston is reputated as a director whose central interest is in male characters. However, this sequence is striking in the visual centrality of women (who appear in a third of the shots) and the suggestions about gender relations in New Bedford. The women are on screen for a short time; they do not speak (with the exception of the woman passing out Bibles). But Huston wants us to remember them. The women carry thematic weight because they embody the families the men leave behind, the land they leave for the sea and, given the scene is preceded by Elijah's warning, the life they will lose when the ship meets its predicted fate.

We see several generations of women in the group shots—older women who are mothers of the crew, younger women are wives and girlfriends, and young girls who are daughters. Huston resists sentimentalizing these moments: the women do not weep;  no women is associated with a particular man. They stare blankly ahead; they are resigned to what is happening. What we view is the absence of emotion—the flatness of expression, the emptiness of eyes—coupled with weathered faces and plain dress. Several times, the filmmaker draws our attention to an older woman with facial hair (at 01:25), not the kind of character we expect to see in a Hollywood film.

The scene's real power is created through juxtaposition. For example, Huston contrasts the men's frantic physical activity with the static, passive staunce of the women. The women watch, and wait. Huston separates the women from the men through the framing of shots. He moves between shots of men working on deck to shots of the women watching as a group and then as individuals. Huston includes men and women in the same shots or shows men brushing past the women as they climb onto the ship. The women walk away as soon as the gang plank is pulled aside. We assume they are returning to their homes, but the following shots show them moving toward the edge of the dock for a last, longing look as their men sail out to sea. At the end of the scene, the women in the background frame the ship; a view from a rooftop, perhaps Starbuck's home, looks out at the ship moving into the distance. Once again, we see men and women in the same shot but the camera's point of view suggests the growing physical distance between them (See 02:50). The final shot of the sequence is from the shore looking out at the ship as it pulls from view.

The film’s editing and framing accent the physical separation between the men and the women. Huston uses certain shots of the men at work on the ship framed from the point of view of the women on shore. These shots are rarely from a literal point-of-view; they are often closer views of the men than the physical location of the women would suggest. The juxtaposition of the two points of view invites the viewer to read the men as objects of the women's intense gaze. 

The soundtrack functions to link the two spaces (the men's singing and their work on the ship bleeds over to the silent women on shore) and to convey separate emotional experiences (The music suggests the sorrow of the women and the heroic actions of the men).
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