The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.
Nearing the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, the Pequod sailed through an archipelago of islands that provided a kind of natural gateway to the China seas. Ishmael describes this natural “boundary” as a sort of ineffectual defense against European and American imperialism or, as he puts it, “the all-grasping Western world.”
It was here that the Pequod spotted the “mother lode”—an entire herd of Sperm whales, a couple of miles wide! Immediately, they gave chase, pursing the herd which had banded together as a kind of defense strategy against pillaging whalers from the “all-grasping Western world.” Ishmael thinks, “It would almost seem as if numerous nations of them (whales) had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection.” This confederation of whale herds may be interpreted as a kind of metaphor for all the peoples and resources of the world which imperialist Western nations were voraciously claiming and pillaging in the late 19th century, Melville’s day. Interestingly, certain Native American tribes had also joined together for mutual protection against the encroaching United States. For all its high adventure, Moby Dick is also a profound meditation on America. Melville saw his country as it was, with all its horror and beauty.
As the Pequod pursued the herd, they were briefly chased by Malaysian pirates. It’s an action-packed scene—the Pequod furiously chasing an enormous herd of giant whales while, at the same time, being chased by pirates! Eventually, the pirates gave up. Gaining on the herd, the Pequod dropped her harpoon boats, hoping to spear some whales for their costly oil. Sensing imminent attack, the whale-herd formed itself into a kind of circular defense pattern. Starbucks’ boat, with Queequeg as harpooneer, succeeded in spearing a whale, who then dragged their small boat deeper and deeper into the concentric circles of the herd.
When they finally reached the center, they discovered something amazing and heartbreaking—nursing mothers and infant whales, “the women and children of this routed host.” They even spotted a baby whale still connected to its mother by an umbilical cord. “Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pod,” Ishmael muses. These mothers and babies, those most vulnerable, swam helplessly at the center of the herd. It is a poignant and tragic scene, in which the whales are not portrayed as “monsters of the sea” but as living mothers and children, families, seeking only to live.