Sceme4 Magazine | The Steiny Road To Operadom | Karren Lalonde Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier

3D Whaling versus 4D Tender Buttons

To become intimate with the eye of a whale or experience the sight of a three-pronged harpoon flying into your face is what 3D does for you in the film In The Heart of the Sea by director Ron Howard.

While you might be scratching your head wondering how the Steiny Road Poet [a.k.a. Karren Alenier] could be interested in the backstory of how Herman Melville came to write Moby Dick, Steiny’s answer is eureka! Gertrude Stein was so fourth dimensional that one of her models for writing Tender Buttons was The Whale or Moby-Dick as the title of Melville’s epic novel appeared when it was respectively published in London in October 1851 and in New York the next month. The United States version of the novel was slightly different from its London cousin. According to an article dated December 10, 2015, at, Melville’s brother Allan may have been the culprit who added the hyphen to the whale’s name, a popular way of spelling such names in Melville’s time though Melville only hyphenated Moby Dick once inside the novel.

Now before Steiny tells you that no character in In The Heart of the Sea refers to the gargantuan white (or rather gray in Howard’s film) whale with any name except monster, she wants to establish that no one in the world of academia is saying currently that Stein used Moby Dick as a model for writing Tender Buttons (a long poem written in 1912 and 1913). There is one reference by Claudia Franken in her book Gertrude Stein, Writer and Thinker (published in 2000) that states Stein, in her prose piece “England” which is part of Geography and Plays (writings written from about 1908 to 1920), alludes to chapter 85: The Fountain in Moby Dick. Franken also says that cover artwork for Tender Buttons was an asparagus stalk which evoked “the strong freshness of organic nature, conceivably of both the sprout and the tree, and ‘a fountain…’” (p. 226).

So once again, Steiny will assert that Karren Alenier is saying that Stein used Moby Dick as a model for writing Tender Buttons. Alenier is now writing about this on her new blog called Dick Buttons. Whether the assertion holds all the way through the epic sea story remains to be seen, but based on the work Alenier did in reading William Shakespeare’s comic play As You Like It through Tender Buttons (something you can see here in Scene4), Alenier believes there will be much crosstalk between Melville’s and Stein’s classic works.

Did Steiny like In The Heart of the Sea? Yes, she did but not because of the splashy 3D special effects or because she felt enlightened about Melville’s (Ben Whishaw) intellectual quest to uncover the story of the monstrous whale that destroyed the Essex as piloted by Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). The film is anchored by Melville interviewing the initially unwilling lone survivor of the Essex, the besotted Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a man unable to come to terms with the cannibalism he endured in order to survive the escape from the scuttled Essex. What particularly interested Steiny was getting a visceral understanding of what it was like to go out in a whale boat—how dangerous that was and what risk takers each of the men in those boats were. This is where 3D was actually helpful.


Steiny also did not thoroughly understand how intimate the sailors had to get with processing the blubber into oil. Oh sure, she has read ahead a bit in Moby Dick to Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand where Ishmael squishes blubber through his fingers in a way that seems extremely sexual, but the scene in the film where the youthful Nickerson (Tom Holland) is forced to enter the head of a whale to harvest the rest of the blubber is horrifying. The teenager was the only one who fit through the hole in the whale’s head. In Steiny’s mind this descent into hell (it smelled extremely bad inside the whale) had to be worse than spelunking. Steiny does not like being in small spaces, but then, who does?

Watching Chris Hemsworth (Steiny doesn’t know if a stuntman doubled) agilely climb the rigging to cut loose one of the sails as the ship began its journey was pure pleasure. Hemsworth does a good job being a super hero, a ruthless leader, and a tender family man. He is worth the price of admission.


In Steiny’s opinion, the script was intelligent and done so well that she would consider seeing the film again.  Some of the lines had a Shakespearian lilt like Chase promising, 'I'll come back as soon as quick as a summer's night.” Captain Pollard turns a handsome phrase when he says without apologizing to his first mate Chase that Chase, who was labeled unfairly as a landlubber (versus seaman), was born to do whale hunting work while he (Pollard) was merely born into the right family. At the end of the film, we hear a passing comment about how there was news of oil (petroleum) coming from the ground in Pennsylvania. It’s not eloquently stated but it is important in the socio-economic events of America in the middle of the 19th century.

One more thing, Queequeg, or any exotic like Queequeg, does not appear in In The Heart of the Sea. This film is not Moby Dick and does not pretend to be Moby Dick. Probably the next best move is to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

To find out more about the crosstalk between Moby Dick and Tender Buttons, visit

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2016 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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January 2016

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