Moby Dick: a Book Report

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.  This will (hopefully) culminate in a large book report on the whole book.  I will also include illustrations I find on the internet or in books.

Chapter 1: Loomings

The novel begins by introducing the narrator, who says, “Call me Ishmael.”  This name is significant because it is from the Bible, and Moby Dick is full of biblical references.  Ishmael was the other son of Abraham, brother of Isaac.  It was not Ishmael who received the main promise from God.  He became a wanderer, apart from Abraham’s community.  Interestingly, however, Muslims revere Ishmael as a spiritual ancestor, unlike Jews and Christians.  By telling us to call him Ishmael, the narrator is perhaps saying that he is, in some ways, a rebel, a vagabond from American Christian society of the 19th century.

The narrator is tired of society and life, and so decides to “see the watery part of the world.”  Ishmael is depressed in body and soul, and he sees a kind of salvation at sea.  He says humans have a mystical longing for water, and it is there we can find renewal.  “Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert,” he says, “try this experiment.”  The “experiment” is to join the crew of a whaling ship, and head to sea.

Ishmael decides to go as a crew member, not a passenger, for one primary reason: They pay you, and he is poor.  But his deeper reason is spiritual.  “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” he says, “By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open.”

Thus begins Moby Dick.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

Ishmael leaves his hometown of Manhattan (New York) and travels, carpet bag in hand, to New Bedford, where he hopes to find lodging before seeking employment on a whale-ship sailing from Nantucket.  The title of the chapter, “The Carpet Bag,” is (I think) a sly reference to the political practice of “carpetbagging” in which people from outside a town travel to a new place, hoping to benefit form their political resources.  It’s a pejorative term, and I think the narrator sees himself as a kind of carpetbagger because he’s not from Nantucket or New Bedford, but he hopes to benefit from what they have to offer (i.e. whaling opportunities).  The chapter begins with a little digression in which the narrator pontificates on the historic significance of Nantucket to the whaling industry in America.  Moby Dick is full of such interesting digressions.

Ishmael arrives in New Bedford on a cold, dreary evening.  Because he is poor, he tries to find a cheap, shabby-looking inn.  He dismisses “The Crossed Harpoons” and “The Swordfish” as too expensive-looking, before entering a building called “The Trap.”  As it turns out, this is not an inn, but a “negro church.”  Melville wrote Moby Dick in the 1850s, at the height of the Abolitionist Movement in America, and the town of New Bedford was actually an important center of Abolitionist activity (Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison hung out there).  Though he does not pontificate much on the meaning of “The Trap,” the book (again, subtly) acknowledges that slavery is still a thing at this time.  Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison wrote a very interesting chapter about Moby Dick and race in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

Eventually, Ishmael finds a shabby and cheap inn with this mysterious sign out front: “The Spouter Inn: —Peter Coffin.”  Presumably, Peter Coffin is the proprietor, but this somber name (Coffin) leads the narrator into another digressive reflection on the biblical character of Lazarus, the man who died, and whom Jesus raised from the dead.  Perhaps, like Lazarus, Ishmael will be revived from his melancholy.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

Ishmael enters the shabby-looking Spouter-Inn and is struck by the decor.  A very old and weathered painting hangs on the wall, “a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly.”  At first, he makes fun of it (to himself), but upon closer inspection and reflection finds an “unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it.”  Though he can’t quite make out what it is, the painting suggests multiple meanings, the last of which is of “an exasperated whale…in the enormous act of impaling itself upon the three mast-heads.”  Precisely because of its dark, abstract, and ragged quality, the painting seems (to me) to be a kind of visual preview of the novel to come—a sublime work of art with many meanings.

The walls of The Spouter-Inn are “decorated” with various weapons and “rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all broken and deteriorated.”  The shelves are filled with all manner of strange 19th century things—decanters, bones, bottles, and flasks.  A little old man, the proprietor, is serving some seamen, his customers.

Ishmael asks the proprietor if he has any rooms available, and the man says no, unless he wants to share a bed with a harpooneer.  Reluctantly, Ishmael agrees, and here begins a humorous back-and-forth in which the innkeeper gives Ishmael some disturbing hints about his bed-mate, which cause increasing anxiety and fear.  For example, the harpooneer likes to eat rare steaks, he is “dark complexioned”, and he is currently wandering around New Bedford trying to sell a human head.  Based on these facts, Ishmael surmises that his mysterious bedfellow is a “heathen, savage, cannibal.”

After some not-altogether-reassuring reassurances from the landlord, Ishmael goes to bed, but is unable to sleep, considering the fact that he’s bunking with a “dangerous cannibal.”  Finally, his bed-mate arrives and, at first, confirms all his worst fears.  He is covered in tattoos, he smokes from a deadly-looking tomahawk pipe, and he prays to a little “idol.”  The harpooneer jumps into bed and bumps Ishmael.  At first they are both startled, and Ishmael calls desperately for the landlord, who enters and says, “Queequeg here wouldn’t harm a hair of your head.”  As it turns out, this “heathen, savage, cannibal” is really a very kind and charitable fellow.  Ishmael falls asleep “and never slept better” in his life.

This chapter is a really important one in the novel and in the context of 1850s America.  Ishmael realizes that “ignorance is the parent of fear” and ultimately concludes: “What’s all this fuss I have been making about…the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”  Contrary to the widely-held racism of his day, Ishmael transcends fears and stereotypes, and will ultimately develop a great friendship with this supposed “other.”  Just like the painting at the beginning of the chapter, Queequeg the harpooneer will turn out to be much more than first appearances and impressions suggest.

Ishmael and Queequeg

Chapter 4: The Counterpane

Ishmael awakes beside Queequeg, whose arm is affectionately thrown over him: “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.  You had almost thought I had been his wife.”  This funny image contrasts with Ishmael’s fear of the “savage” the night before.  Contrary to social mores, the Christian and the pagan have become friends and bedfellows.

However, Queequeg’s arm over Ishmael presents a challenge—how can he get up without waking him?  The scenario reminds him of a childhood experience.  Once, when he was “grounded” to his room, he lay in bed and suddenly felt some strange supernatural hand in his—an experience he found terrifying.  This experience of the divine was like what Old Testament prophets experienced.

Finally, Ishmael succeeds in waking the “savage,” who proceeds to get dressed and ready for the day.  Humorously, Queequeg uses his harpoon blade to shave his face.

Chapter 5: Breakfast

In the morning, all the sea-men staying at The Spouter-Inn gather together for breakfast.  They are an impressive, motley crew.  Ishmael is surprised by the fact that these great whale-men, who have seen more of the world than most, eat together in almost total silence.  He describes the scene in this way:

"I was preparing to hear some good stories about whaling; to my no small surprise, nearly every man maintained a profound silence.  And not only that, but they looked embarrassed.  Yes, here was a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas--entire strangers to them--and dueled them dead without winking; and yet, here they all sat at a social breakfast table--all of the same calling, all of kindred tastes--looking round as sheepishly at each other as though they had never even out of sight of some sheepfold among the Green Mountains.  A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen!"

This scene reminds me of veterans of World War II, many of whom were reticent to talk about their war experiences.  The implication is that, what they experienced away from polite society was too intense and profound to discuss over a meal.  The scene also implies that these whalemen are cut from a different cloth than the rest of society.  They are men of action, not words, and find themselves out of place, fish out of water if you will, when home among the comforts of shore-life.  Queequeg, humorously, uses his harpoon to spear helpings of rare beefsteak.

Chapter 6: The Street

After breakfast, Ishmael takes a stroll around New Bedford, to see the sights.  It is, indeed, a fascinating town.  Because it is a prominent sea-port, there are strange characters from all over the world.  It sort of reminds me of the Mos Eisley space station from Star Wars—weird and shady characters from distant places gather there.

Another peculiar feature of New Bedford are its opulent mansions.  Before the discovery and use of crude oil (from the ground), the main heating fuel in America was whale oil.  Greed for this oil is what prompted New England ships to scour the world’s oceans for whales, almost driving some to extinction.  One could actually argue that this discovery of crude oil “saved the whales,” though it created its own set of problems.

Because New Bedford was a whaling port, a lot of wealth flowed through it, and into the coffers of the owners of ships and whaling companies.  Ishmael is startled by the great wealth of these local whale-oil barons.

Chapter 7: The Chapel

While Ishmael is out on his morning stroll in New Bedford, it begins to rain, and he takes refuge inside a Whaleman’s Chapel, where people sit silently looking at marble inscriptions memorializing sailors who died at sea.  It is a silent, somber scene: “Each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.”  Ishmael supposes that these mourners are relatives of the dead, and he reflects upon the morbidity of faith.  “Faith, like a jackal,” he muses, “feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”

Ishmael cannot participate in this somber spirituality.  His sense of the transcendent is tied to life: “Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.”  He does not fear death, but rather is excited to begin his own thrilling sea-voyage.  Ironically, Ishmael sees the “heathen” Queequeg in the chapel, which breaks yet another stereotype he has of this strange tattooed man—his new friend.  Queequeg isn’t mourning either, because he can’t read.  This little scene emphasizes the idea that the main characters who go to sea are somehow set apart from society at large, and are not bound by its values, fears, and superstitions.  

Marble inscription memorializing a whale man who died at sea.

Chapter 8: The Pulpit

The minister of The Whaleman’s Chapel arrives, Father Mapple, and he is an impressive figure.  In his youth, he was a whaler and now, in his old age, he is a pastor to whalers.  His pulpit is constructed to look like the prow of a ship.  To reach it, Father Mapple must climb a mariner’s rope-ladder.  Behind him is a large painting of a ship in a stormy sea, with an angel flying above it.  “Ah, noble ship,” the angel seemed to say, “beat on, beat on.”

Ishmael reflects on the symbolic significance of the ship/pulpit: “Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”  The Whaleman’s Chapel reminds us of the other great cultural tradition of New England besides whaling: Puritan Christianity.  The first pilgrims and settlers were Puritan Christians, and this strain of tradition runs from America’s beginnings to the present day, for better and for worse.

Father Mapple

Chapter 9: The Sermon

After ascending his ship-pulpit, Father Mapple offers “a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.”  Then he leads the congregation in a hymn whose speaker is, appropriately, Jonah—the biblical prophet who fled God’s calling, went to sea, was swallowed by a whale, repented, got barfed up by the whale, and then completed his prophetic mission.  The hymn is quite moving, expressing Jonah’s despair and redemption.

After the hymn, Father Mapple gives his sermon, which is an impassioned re-telling of the story of Jonah, with some commentary.  This is a sermon for mariners.  Here are some quotes I liked from Father Mapple’s sermon:

“In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all ports.”

“Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul.  In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known.”

“To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!  That was it!”

“Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appall!  Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness!”

“Delight is to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self.”

Father Mapple’s sermon can be seen as a kind of microcosm of the novel.  Perhaps Ishmael is Jonah, fleeing American society to find himself at sea.  Perhaps Ahab is Jonah, raging against the white whale, which is like his god.  Moby Dick is a book deep with spiritual significance, almost like an American prophecy, and Father Mapple’s impassioned sermon drives home this theme.

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

Ishmael returns to his room at the Spouter-Inn and finds his bedfellow Queequeg sitting alone, whittling the nose of his little idol and scanning a large book.  Despite the strange, tattooed outer appearance of the “savage,” Ishmael sees something beautiful: “You cannot hide the soul.  Through all his unearthly tattooings, I saw the traces of a simple and honest heart.”  Ishmael decides to befriend the strange foreigner.  “I’ll try a pagan friend,” he reasons, “since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.”  So the two share a smoke and become fast friends.

After dinner, Queequeg invites Ishmael to pray with him, before his little wooden idol.  This creates an internal dilemma for Ishmael because he is a Christian, and has been often told to shun such “idolatry.”  But, he reasons, true worship is a far deeper thing than little idols.  He gives a profound meditation on a kind of spiritual solidarity that transcends particular religions:

“But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship.  And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me—that is the will of God.  Now, Queequeg is my fellow man.  And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to to me?  Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship.  Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.  So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and with the world.”

"Queequeg and Ishmael" by Monica Namyar.

Chapter 11: Nightgown

At some point in the middle of the night, both Ishmael and Queequeg wake up.  It is cold and uncomfortable, and they can’t get warm and comfortable.  So they sit up and share a smoke, and Queequeg tells his story, which is (briefly) as follows (see chapter 12)...

Chapter 12: Biographical

He is a native of the (fictional) island of Kokovoko, and the son of the chief (or king) of that distant land.  Thus, Queequeg is a prince.  One day, a whaling ship arrives and Queequeg (much like Ishmael) is compelled to go to sea and check out the wider world.  He is particularly interested in “Christian civilization”.

At first, the captain of the ship refuses him passage, but the young Queequeg paddles out in his canoe, meets the ship, and climbs the anchor-chain aboard.  The captain, at first, threatens to throw him overboard, but “Queequeg was the son of a king, and Queequeg budged not.”  Eventually, the king allows him to stay, and thus begins his career as a harpooner.

At first, Queequeg is determined to learn from the Christians how to improve himself and his people.  “But, alas! the practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens.”  So Queequeg retains his native beliefs.

Ironically, Queequeg feels that living among Christians has “unfitted him for ascending the pure and undefiled throne of thirty pagan kings before him.”  In short, Queequeg  feels he’s been corrupted by Christian civilization, and thus is set on wandering the world until he reaches some kind of redemption.  As it turns out, Queequeg and Ishmael have similar spiritual impulses and longings.

Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

The next morning, Ishmael and Queequeg pack up their stuff and head together to find passage from New Bedford to the island of Nantucket.  They share a wheelbarrow to lug their gear.  Walking together down the streets of the town, they receive many disapproving stares: “people stared; not at Queequeg so much—for they were used to seeing cannibals like him in their streets—but at seeing him and me (Ishmael) upon such confidential terms.”  At this time, in American society, it was seen as weird for people of different cultures to be friends, apparently.  This chapter is full of ironies which criticize the racism of American society.

While aboard a small schooner to Nantucket, the two friends continue to receive disapproving stares.  One guy is so bold as to mockingly mimic Queequeg, who is not one to take any such shit.  He grabs the guy and flings him in the air so he does a flip and lands back on his feet.  The astonished mariner complains to the captain, saying, “Capting, capting, here’s the devil.”  The captain neglects steering the boat to scold Queequeg without bothering to get the full story.  Meanwhile, because of the captain’s negligence, a sail comes loose and actually knocks the guy overboard.

While the captain and sailors look on helplessly, Queequeg immediately, heroically, springs into action.  Without a word, he rights the sail, then dives into the ocean and saves the very man who had mocked him.  It’s an almost Christ-like action, for which Queequeg requires no recognition.  He quietly dries himself off and commences smoking his pipe.  No big deal.  An amazed Ishmael imagines Queequeg thinking, “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians.  We cannibals must help these Christians.”  Through such ironies, Melville subtly subverts the arrogant/racist attitudes of his day.

Chapter 14: Nantucket

Ishmael and Queequeg arrive on the strange island of Nantucket, off the coast of New England.  It’s described as a sandy, rather barren island where “one blade of grass makes an oasis,” and the inhabitants wear “quicksand shoes” so as not to sink into the sand.  Melville tells the legend of how the island was first settled by Native Americans.  Long ago, an eagle swooped down along the New England coast (before it was called New England), snatched up an Indian baby, and carried it off over the sea.  The natives looked on in horror, and then set off in their canoes, chasing the bird of prey.  Finally, they landed on the island of Nantucket, where they found the baby’s skeleton.

After settling the island, the natives eventually became masters of the sea, conquering it “like so many Alexanders.”  The natives of Nantucket are said to possess all the oceans of the world, making them stronger than any European colonial power, including Britain, Spain, and Portugal.  Unfortunately, by the time of Moby Dick, the natives of Nantucket had been largely replaced by the American whaling industry.  Melville ends the chapter with a poetic description of a mariner from Nantucket at sea: “the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.”

Chapter 15: Chowder

Arriving upon the island of Nantucket, Ishmael and Queequeg search for the inn that was recommended to them by the owner of the Spouter-Inn: his cousin Hosea's place called the Try-Pots, which is famous for its chowder.  After much searching, the two come upon the inn.  The entrance is decorated with two giant black pots and what looks like a gallows.  Ishmael reflects upon the morbid signs that he keeps encountering: The owner of the Spounter-Inn was named Coffin, tombstones greeted him in the Whalemen's Chapel, and now a gallows at the Try-Pots!  Nevertheless, the two companions enter the Inn and are greeted by Mrs. Hosea Hussey, who serves them the most delicious clam chowder they have ever tasted.  Then they turn in for the night.

Chapter 16: The Ship

The next morning Ishmael goes looking for a whaling ship on Nantucket which might hire him and Queequeg for a voyage.  He settles upon a ship called the Pequod, named after a New England native American tribe that had been decimated by white settlers.  Americans have a strange habit of naming things (ships, sports teams, missiles) after defeated Indian tribes.

The Pequod is an old but sturdy craft.  Ishmael describes the ship in this way: “she was a thing of trophies.  A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies…A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy!  All noble things are touched with that.”

Ishmael encounters a crusty old sailor named Peleg, who is one of the owners of the craft, and thus Ishmael’s potential employer.  Peleg takes Ishmael to see the other owner, Bildad.  Being old Nantucketers, the two captains are Quakers, a religious sect known for its pacifism.  However, because they are involved in the bloody business of whaling, Ishmael ironically describes them as “fighting Quakers…Quakers with a vengeance.” 

The apparent contradiction of the two Quaker captains gets to the heart of a kind of American hypocrisy: “Though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he (Bildad) in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tons upon tons of leviathan gore…very probably he had long since come to sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.  This world pays dividends.”

This hypocrisy is also shown in paltry sum which Bildad offers Ishmael.  He quotes scripture to justify his cheapness: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…”  This is hypocritical, of course, because in cheating Ishmael, Bildad is enriching himself.  Yet captain Peleg intervenes, and guarantees Ishmael a more equitable wage. 

The chapter ends with Peleg giving mysterious descriptions of the ship’s captain, Ahab, who thus far has not appeared.  Like the Quaker ship-owners, Ahab is described as a man of contradictions: “He ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either.”  Peleg describes Ahab as “a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man—something like me—only there’s a good deal more of him.”  He tells Ishmael that Ahab lost his leg to a whale on the past voyage and “was out of his mind for a spell.” 

Ishmael leaves feeling a sense of sympathy, sorrow, and awe for the mysterious captain Ahab.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan

After making arrangements with the captain of the Pequod, Ishmael returns to the Try Pots Inn to tell his companion about their new jobs as whalers.  Unfortunately, the door to their room is bolted shut, and Ishmael cannot enter.  When he left, Queequeg was performing a kind of religious ritual which Ishmael mistakenly called a “Ramadan.”

Ishmael knocks on the door and calls out, but there is no answer inside.  At this point, Ishmael gets worried that his friend has died, so he calls for the Inn-Keeper.  After a comical exchange, Ishmael ultimately breaks down the door to find Queequeg sitting quietly in the center of the room, still performing his religious ritual, oblivious to anything else.  He remains in this posture until the next morning.

When Queequeg finally completes his “Ramadan,” Ishmael immediately tries to dissuade his friend of his strange religious customs: “I told him…that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his.”  Queequeg listens politely: “He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety.”

This chapter is about how each man, Ishmael the Christian and Queequeg the Pagan, both think that their religion is totally sensible and the others the height of ignorance.  This is probably how a lot of religious people view other religions—with almost total ignorance.  At one point, however, Ishmael has an insight that gets to the heart of the matter: “Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterian and pagan alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

Chapter 18: His Mark

Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod to make final arrangements with the ship’s owners.  Seeing the tattooed Queequeg, Bildad asks if he has papers demonstrating that he is a Christian.  Apparently, this is a requirement for employment in whaling.

Ishmael lies and says that Queequeg is a member of the First Congregational Church.  Doubtful, Bildad then asks Ishmael which church he beings to, and his reply is beautifully inclusive: “The same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong: the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that.”  Here, “catholic” means “universal” as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church.  Ishamael is speaking of a kind of universal brotherhood of humanity.

The ship’s owners' reservations vanish when Queequeg gives a demonstration of his astonishing harpoon abilities.  Queequeg and Ishmael sign up and prepare to sail with the Pequod.  Because Queequeg cannot write his name, he signs his whaling contract like this.  This is his mark:

Chapter 19: The Prophet

After signing contracts to sail with the Pequod, Queequeg and Ishmael make their way to shore, where they are accosted by a crazy-seeming man named Elijah who says a bunch of cryptic and foreboding things, mainly dealing with Captain Ahab.  This is interesting because, in the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah clashed with a wicked king named Ahab.  There are many interesting connections between Moby Dick and the Bible.

The Prophet Elijah by Barry Moser

Chapter 20: All Astir

Bildad, Peleg, and the crew of the Pequod make the ship ready for departure, stocking up on all the necessary supplies for a three-year voyage.  Bildad’s sister Charity helps outfit the ship for its long journey.  She also leaves Christian tracts for the sailors.  Ahab is still yet to be seen, a fact which causes Ishmael some anxiety.

Chapter 21: Going Aboard

On the day of their departure, Ishmael and Queewqueg arrive at the Pequod early in the morning.  They are again accosted by the annoying and foreboding “prophet” Elijah who makes references to a few shadowy/ghost-like sailors he saw board the ship.  Shrugging off the strange man’s warnings, the two sailors board the Pequod and find it very quiet.  They encounter a sleeping sailor, who tells them that Ahab is aboard.  Anxious with anticipation, Ishmael and Queequeg watch as more sailors board the vessel.

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas

On a cold Christmas day, the Pequod makes ready to sail.  The ship’s two owners, Bildad and Peleg, direct the crew members in their preparation tasks.  The crusty, vulgar Peleg barks profane orders at the crew, the sailors sing bawdy sea-faring songs, and the pious Bildad sings psalms and hymns as they all work, like this chorus:

“Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood
While Jordan rolled between.”

This hymn is a reference to the scene in the Old Testament when the Jews prepared to enter their “Promised Land” of Canaan, a place they had to take by conquest.  This story sort of parallels the ship Pequod setting off on its voyage—many adventures and dangers are in store.  Bildad’s hymn has a strong impact on Ishmael, who thinks to himself: “Never dod those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then.  They were full of hope and fruition.  Spite of this frigid winter night in the boisterous Atlantic, spite of my wet feet and wetter jacket, there was yet, it then seemed to me, many a pleasant haven in store.”

At last, the Pequod sets sail—Bildad and Peleg leave the ship to Captain Ahab and the first mate Starbuck.  As the ship departs, Ishmael recounts: “We gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.”

Given the numerous biblical references in Moby Dick, it feels significant that they depart on Christmas.  As with the birth of Christ, the beginning of their journey is full of wonder, hope, and the promise of new things.

Chapter 24: The Advocate

This chapter is one of many digressions in the novel, in which the author pontificates on the topic of whaling.  The chapter is called “The Advocate” because in it the author acts like a lawyer seeking to defend whaling against the various criticisms leveled against it, which are as follows:

1.) To the charge that whaling is “butchery,” the author replies that war is far bloodier, yet soldiers are regarded as heroes.

2.) To the charge that whaling has no great author/chronicler, he cites Job, who first described the great “Leviathan.”

3.) To the charge that there is no dignity in whaling, the author responds that he learned more aboard a whale-ship than at college, “for a whale-ship was my Yale college and my Harvard.”

The author also gives three positive aspects of whaling, which are as follows:

1.) Whaling is a highly profitable part of the world economy.

2.) Whalemen are often the first explorers of remote regions.

3.) In a subsequent brief chapter called “Postscript,” the author points out that whale-oil is often used in the coronation of kings and queens, and therefore whaling is a regal thing.

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

This is the first in a series of chapters in which the author describes the qualities and character of the chief members of the Pequod’s crew.  It’s called “Knights and Squires” because Melville sees great valor and dignity in ordinary men.  In a very American, Walt Whitman-esque way, he holds a democratic view of dignity:

“If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!”

The first mate of the ship is a tall and slender but hardy Quaker named Starbuck.  He is a tough man of action who has a fair estimation of the dangers of whaling.  “I will not have a man in my boat,” says Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.”  A practical man, Starbuck believes that fear, like courage is “not a mere sentiment, but a thing simply useful.”  My favorite description of Starbuck is as follows:

“Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life.  A staid, steadfast man whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of words.”

Starbuck is the first mate of the Pequod.

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

This is a continuation of the previous chapter in which the author describes the chief mates of the Pequod and their harpooneers. 

The second mate is a happy-go-lucky man named Stubb whose easy-going attitude contrasts sharply with the seriousness of Starbuck.  Despite the dangers of his profession, Stubb remains carefree: “Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair.”  A distinguishing feature of Stubb is his pipe, which he is constantly smoking.  The author attributes his positive attitude to this: “against all mortal tribulations, Stubb’s tobacco smoke might have operated as a sort of disinfecting agent.”


The third mate is a guy named Flask: “a short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him.”  Flask has no reverence for the majesty and grandeur of whales.  To him, they are no more than “water rats” that need to be exterminated.


Each of the ship’s three mates (Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) has his own harpooner, who are as follows:

Starbuck’s harpooner is Queequeg, about whom we already know.


Stubb’s harpooner is a Native American man named Tashtego, a great hunter on land and sea.


Flask’s harpooner is a large African-American man named Dagoo.  Interestingly, each of the harpooneers is non-white.  On this point, the author comments: “Herein it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army and military and merchant navies, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads.”  The point is that, much of the actual building of America was done by non-white immigrants.


Chapter 28: Ahab

For several days after leaving Nantucket, captain Ahab remains secluded in his cabin.  When he finally emerges and stands before the crew, he says nothing.  Ishmael makes some interesting observations of the captain’s appearance.  He has a scar that runs the length of his face: “Whether that mark was born with him or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.”  Regarding the captain’s expression, the author writes, “Moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face.”

Ahab also has an ivory leg, “fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm-whale’s jaw.”

Chapter 29: Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

As the Pequod sails on, Ahab begins spending his evenings alone on the quiet deck of the ship, while the other sailors sleep.  The captain’s first lines of the book, which he mutters to himself, are prescient: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.”

One night, on his evening stroll about the deck, Ahab is approached by the second-mate Stubb, who asks if the captain could muffle the loud noise that his ivory leg makes upon the deck.  Bad move, Stubb.  Ahab harshly insults Stubb, calling him a “dog” and “a donkey, a mule, and an ass.”  This scolding disturbs the otherwise happy-go-lucky Stubb, who quietly descends back to his cabin.  As he approaches his bunk, we get the inner thoughts of Stubb, who thinks Ahab to be “full of riddles.”

Chapter 30: The Pipe

Ahab now sits alone on the deck of the Pequod, smoking his pipe.  Melville describes him as “a king of the sea; and a great lord of Leviathans,” and compares him to old Norse kings.  Unfortunately, Ahab is too disturbed to take comfort from his pipe-smoking.  He casts his pipe into the sea.

Chapter 31: Queen Mab

The morning after Stubb’s harsh encounter with Ahab, the second mate tells Flask about a strange dream he had in which Ahab kicked him with his whale-bone leg.  Foolishly, Stubb kicked back, but found that it was like kicking a pyramid.  Ahab was immoveable.  Then, in the dream, Stubb was taken into the ocean by a scary merman.  The title of the chapter, Queen Mab, is a tiny mythical creature who was believed to fly into sleeping peoples' noses and give them dreams.

Flask says that Stubb should consider it an honor to be kicked by Ahab, “a great man.”  The two mates are interrupted by the loud voice of Ahab: “Mast-head, there!  Look sharp, all of ye!  There are whales hereabouts!  If ye see a white one, split yer lungs for him!”  And here we get the first hint of Ahab’s true purpose: to capture a white whale.  Stubb says, “Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind.”

Queen Mab driving her chariot into a sleeping man's nose.

Chapter 32: Cetology

This is a somewhat infamous chapter of Moby Dick--a rather lengthy digression in which the author gives a brief lesson on cetology, listing the various types of whales that were known about in the 19th century.  The author admits that his biological lesson will be incomplete "because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallably be faulty."  Nevertheless, Melville says, "I will try."  Here are the types of whales he describes.  You may click on the whale's name to read more about each animal.

In the category of large whales...

1.) The Sperm Whale

 3.) The Fin-Back Whale (also called the Fin Whale).

4.) The Hump-Back Whale.

5.) The Sulfur-Bottom Whale (known today as the Blue Whale).

In the category of medium-sized whales...

6.) Grampus (known today as the Orca or Killer Whale).

7.) The Black-Fish Whale (known today as the Pilot Whale).

8.) The Narwhal.

In the category of small whales...

9.) The Huzza Porpoise (known today as the Bottlenose Dolphin).

10.) The Mealy-Mouthed Porpoise (known today as the Southern Right Whale Dolphin).

Chapter 33: The Specksynder

The title of this chapter, the Specksynder, comes from an old Dutch whaling title which refers to the chief harpooneer.  This chapter further describes Ahab as a kind of emperor or king, though he is dressed in shabby sailor’s clothes. The author writes: “Oh, Ahab!  What shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!”

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

This chapter presents a humorous dinnertime scene: Ahab and his three mates eat together silently, solemnly: “Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion.”  Because of the captain’s “awful silence,” the three mates are terrified to speak.

By contrast, the three harpooneers eat loudly and hungrily, terrorizing the cook/steward, whom they call Dough-Boy.  Like the three mates are scared of Ahab, so Dough-Boy is scared of the harpooneers.  Meilville writes, “Dough Boy’s whole life was one continual lip-quiver.”

Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

This chapter describes the “Mast-Head” of the Pequod, which is the perch near to top of the sails where sailors take turns being on the look-out for whales.  Ishmael describes it as a pleasant place to meditatively reflect on life and spiritual matters: “By the blending cadences of waves with thoughts…at last he loses his identity, takes the mythic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some indiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.  In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space…There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God.”

Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck

At long last, Captain Ahab assembles the crew on the deck of the Pequod and addresses them.  He tells them the true meaning of their voyage—to capture and kill a white whale named Moby Dick, the same whale that bit off his leg.  He offers a gold doubloon to the man who first sees the white whale.  Ahab literally hates Moby Dick, saying:

“Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.  And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, tip he spouts black blood and roll fin out.”

Starbuck is skeptical about the the captain’s mission.  “I came here to hunt whales,” he says, “not my commander’s vengeance.”  But Ahab’s enthusiasm wins over the crew.  He calls the three harpooneers to bring their harpoons, and he does a kind of blessing on them: “It seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life.” 

The crew shares a flagon of some fiery concoction, and Ahab shouts to the men, “Drink, ye harpooners! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick!  God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”

Chapter 37: Sunset

In this short chapter, Captain Ahab sits alone in his cabin and gives a kind of Shakespearean soliloquy, reflecting on his anguished mental state and his unflagging purpose, saying things like "All loveliness is anguish to me" and "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run."

Chapter 38: Dusk

And now Starbuck stands alone, leaning on the main sail, and gives his own inner monologue/soliloquy.  He feels overpowered by Ahab, unable to be a voice of reason amidst the passionate vengeance of the old man and the excitement of the crew.  Starbuck thinks to himself, "I plainly see my miserable office--to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity!"  This is indeed Starbuck's role as first mate--to obey his captain, but to also try to be a voice of reason.  He feels an impending sense of horror.

Chapter 39: First Night-Watch

And now we go to Stubb, the second mate, mending a part of the boat.  Unlike the somber inner monologues of Ahab and Starbuck, Stubb's soliloquy is more light-hearted.  He begins laughing, and says to himself, "I know not all that may be coming, but be what it will, I'll go to it laughing."  And then he sings a silly drinking song to himself:

We'll drink to-night with hearts as light,
To loves as gay and fleeting
As bubbles that swim, on the beaker's brim,
And break on the lips while meeting."

Chapter 41: Moby Dick

This chapter attempts to explain why Captain Ahab hates Moby Dick so much.  The obvious reason is because the white whale bit his leg off.  But, on a deeper level, the whale represents something more intangible.  Melville explains it in this way:

"The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.  That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning...he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.  All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.  He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

 After losing his leg, Ahab went a bit mad.  And while, on the surface, he now appears relatively sane, the truth is that he is, secretly, still pretty insane.

Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

In this chapter, the narrator Ishmael attempts to explain why Moby-Dick was so horrifying to him.  There was, he says, “a vague, nameless horror concerning him…and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable it was, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form.  It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”  Ishmael acknowledges that this is difficult to explain, “and yet, in some dim random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.”  Here Ishmael is saying that this difficult, ineffable explanation is central to understanding the book.  What, after all, could be so scary about whiteness in America?  What indeed.

Ishmael begins by acknowledging that, in many historical examples, whiteness has been identified not with horror, but with beauty, perfection, even the holy.  In the 19th century, for example, white skin on people gave them a perceived social superiority, and “mastership over every dusky tribe.”  Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison has a chapter on Moby Dick in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination in which she suggests that what Moby Dick represents is the horrifying paradox of whiteness in America.  Indeed, white people in the U.S. have inflicted terrible atrocities on non-whites (slavery, genocide, segregation, discrimination) based on the bankrupt idea of some non-existent racial hierarchy.

Melville may have had this in mind, but he’s not really explicit about it.  This chapter is more of a meditation on the instability of meaning than an explicit argument about race.  Ishmael gives numerous examples of white things that are beautiful (white elephants, bridal dresses, white tigers, etc.), and white things that elicit horror (an albatross, dead bodies, ghosts).  Perhaps, he suggests, the whiteness of Moby Dick is so scary because white is normally a color associated with beauty, and yet the whale is a monstrous thing—so it messes with our categories of meaning and perception. 

Ultimately, the whiteness of the whale remains, for Ishmael, an appalling mystery.  As he puts it: “By its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartiness voids and immensities of the universe, and, thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way.”  Put another way, the whiteness of the whale represents a kind of existential dread which is really hard to explain.

Chapter 43: Hark!

In this brief chapter, two ordinary sailors named Archy and Cabaco are working a night-shift on the Pequod when Archy hears something like a strange cough in the bowels of the ship.  Apparently, Archy has a very keen ear.  He says to his fellow sailor, “Hark ye, Cabaco, there is someone down in the after-hold that has not yet been seen on deck.”  This mysterious person is yet to be revealed. Who is it?!

Chapter 44: The Chart

In this chapter, Captain Ahab is alone in his cabin, consulting charts/maps of the world’s oceans, attempting to plot a course that would allow him to intercept the white whale, Moby Dick.  The author writes, “it almost seemed that while he himself was marking out lines and courses in the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead.”  For Ahab, this hunt is intensely personal, and takes a real toll on his body and mind: “Ah, God!,” Ishmael notes, “What trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved vengeful desire.  He sleeps with clenched hands and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”

Ahab’s monomania is described as a kind of personal hell: “When this hell in himself yawned beneath him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire.”  The author describes a kind of dissociation between Ahab’s reasoning mind and his eternal living principle, or soul: “As the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own.”

Melville (or Ishmael), shows great compassion for Ahab’s tormented/dissociated monomania: “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”  This is a reference to the Greek myth of Prometheus, a Titan who stole fire from the gods to help mankind.  As punishment, he was chained to a rock and every day a bird of prey came and ate his liver.  A horrible punishment for a lofty and noble act.

Chapter 45: The Affidavit

The word “affidavit” is defined as “a written statement confirmed by oath or affirmation, for use as evidence in court.”  In this chapter, Melville gives examples/evidence of other famous/monstrous whales throughout history, plus examples of real ships that have been sunk by whales.  He does this to show that his tale is factually plausible and not “a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”  This is kind of funny because readers throughout history have seen Moby Dick as a fable or allegory, despite the author’s claims to the contrary.

As for famous/monstrous whales, Melville lists a few, which tend to be named after the regions of the world where they came from: Timor Jack, New Zealand Tom, Morquan King of Japan, and Don Miguel (from Chile).  Melville adds that the sailors who’ve died at the fins of these whales often get no obituary because they died at sea, and no one was there to record their deaths.  He adds, “For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles!  Not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.”

And then Melville lists a few ships that have been sunk by whale attack, the most famous of which was the Essex (sunk in 1820).  From this tragedy, a few men managed to survive: Captain Pollard, and the chief mate Owen Chase.  The harrowing true story of the whaleship Essex was made into a book called In the Heart of the Sea.  More recently, it was made into a movie directed by Ron Howard.  The sinking of the Essex is often cited as the main inspiration for Melville’s novel.

Chapter 46: Surmises

In this chapter, Ahab considers how he will keep his men from mutiny, given his irrational and monomaniacal purpose (killing Moby Dick), which is at odds with the normal purpose of a whaling voyage (making a profit).  Melville writes, "To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order."  Ahab knows that Starbuck will be must difficult to keep in check: "Starbuck would ever be apt to fall into open relapses of rebellion against his captain's leadership, unless some ordinary, prudential, circumstantial influences were brought to bear upon him."

Ahab's plan to keep his men in check is to keep them busy with more immediate tasks.  He compares his sailors to knights of the Crusads: "For even the high lifted and chivalric Crusaders of old times were not content to traverse two thousand miles of land to fight for their holy sepulchre, without committing burglaries, picking pockets, and gaining other pious perquisites by the way."  Abab will use the men's greed and hopes of cash to keep them loyal to his real purpose.

Chapter 47: The Mat-Maker

This chapter begins with Ishmael and Queequeg working together to weave a nautical thing called a sword-mat.  As they are idly weaving, Ishmael (being an intellectual young man) compares their activity to the Greek myth of the Fates weaving the Loom of Time, in which chance, free will, and necessity all work together to direct human destiny.

These deep thoughts are interrupted by the shouts of the harpooneer Tashtego, "There she blows!" -- meaning he has spotted some whales.  The sailors on the Pequod come alive with activity, preparing to pursue the whales.  This activity is interrupted by a loud cry.  Everyone looks at Captain Ahab, "who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air."  What the hell are these phantoms?!

This is a sword-mat.

Chapter 48: The First Lowering

This is probably the most action-packed chapter so far.  Having spotted their first whales, the crew of the Pequod springs into action.  Captain Ahab and each of the three chief mates (Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) descend into the ocean in smaller boats, each with its own harpooner, to give more immediate chase.  Ahab shocks everyone because the crew of his smaller boat is a group of mysterious, foreign-looking stowaways whom no one has seen yet.  The leader of these strange fellows, Ahab’s personal harpooner, is a tall, turbaned fellow named Fedallah.

The crew of the Pequod is temporarily distracted from their whale-chase by the shocking appearance of Ahab’s mysterious mates.  But, quickly enough, the four smaller boats descend into the sea to give chase and hopefully kill a whale.  Each of the chief mates shouts commands at the crew of his smaller boat, urging them to row with all their might.  Ahab’s commands to his crew of mysterious strangers are too disturbing for Ishmael to relate.  He writes:  “But what it was that inscrutable Ahab said to that tiger-yellow crew of his—these were words best omitted here; for you live under the blessed light of the evangelical land.  Only the infidel sharks in the audacious seas may give ear to such words, when, with tornado brow, and eyes of red murder, and foam-glued lips, Ahab leaped after his prey.”

As the boats are giving chase to the whales, a mighty mist and white squall suddenly descends upon everything.  The Pequod is so violently tossed that many crew members are hurled into the sea, including Ishmael.  For a time, no one can see anything.  It’s really scary—this could be the end of their whole endeavor.  Starbuck, in his small boat, hands a lamp to his harpooneer Queequeg.  Melville writes:  “There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness.  There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair.”  Finally, the squall lifts, and everyone, amazingly, makes to back to the Pequod, safe and sound.  It was a close call, and they had not captured the whale.

Chapter 49: The Hyena

This brief chapter gives Ishmael’s reaction to his brush with death in the previous chapter, when (in pursuit of a whale during a stormy squall), he was thrown overboard.  Ishmael asks more experienced whalers like Queequeg, Stubb, and Flask whether these kinds of brushes with death are common on a whaling voyage.  All three men respond in the affirmative—these things are common.

Given such a precarious state of affairs, Ishmael decides to write a draft of his will.  This resignation to the real possibility of his own imminent demise is actually kind of freeing for Ishmael.  He writes: “I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart.  Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be.  I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest.  I looked around me tranquilly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.”

The Resurrection of Lazarus by Leon Bonnat (1857)

Chapter 50: Ahab's Boat and Crew - Fedallah

In this chapter, Ishmael points out how unusual it was for Ahab, the captain of the ship, to have his own small boat, harpooner, and crew.  In most cases, the captain’s life was seen as too valuable to rise in such direct contact with whales.  This was even more true in Ahab’s case because he was handicapped, having a false leg.  This is why Ahab secrtly conscripted Fedallah and the other mysterious crewmen, because the owners of the ship would never have approved it.  It was simply too risky for a captain to be commanding a harpoon boat.  What if he were killed?

Ishmael describes Fedallah, Ahab’s harpooner, in this way: “One cannot sustain an indifferent air concerning Fedallah.  He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, that that but dimly.”

Chapter 51: The Spirit-Spout

One evening, as the Pequod was sailing, Fedallah (Ahab's mysterious harpooner), spotted a silvery jet, like the spouting of  whale.  But this was no ordinary jet: "Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea."  Upon approaching it, however, nothing was seen.  It was like a mirage of whale-spout, a "spirit-spout."  This mysterious vision was seen quite often, around midnight.  The sailors began to believe that it was spouted by Moby-Dick, though the whale had not been seen. 

When the Pequod rounded the Cape of Good Hope, it entered stormy seas: "And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred."  Often, in these stormy seas, black sea-ravens flew behind the ship and perched ominously on its bow.  These sea-ravens, like the spirit-spout, seemed to have a spiritual significance: "We found ourselves launched into this tormented sea, where guilty beings transformed into these fowls and these fish, seemed condemned to swim on everlastingly without any haven in store, or beat that black air without any horizon."

Meanwhile, Captain Ahab kept his gaze and focus fixed forward, passionately seeking the white whale: "With one hand firmly grasping a shroud, Ahab for hours and hours would stand gazing dead to windward, while an occasional squall of sleet or snow would all but congeal his eyelashes together."

Chapter 52: The Albatross

In this chapter, the Pequod encounters another whaling ship called the Albatross, which has been out at sea for a long time, and is heading home to Nantucket.  The ship and crew look weather-beaten and weary: “This craft was bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus.”  As the two ships approach one another, Ahab calls out, “Ship ahoy!  Have ye seen the white whale?”  But the wind and weather are too loud and stormy, and Ahab cannot hear the other captain’s response.  Ahab calls again to the ship: “Ahoy there!  This is the Pequod, bound round the world!  Tell them (back in Nantucket) to address all future letters to the Pacific Ocean!”

And then Ishmael, as he is wont to do, ponders the idea of sailing round the world and how it’s a metaphor for the futility of all human endeavors: “Round the world!  There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct?  Only though numberless perils to the very point whence we started…were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we cold for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage.  But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or another, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round glob, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”

Chapter 53: The Gam

This chapter describes an activity that happens when two whale-ships meet on the open ocean.  They have a “gam” which Melville defines in this way:

GAM. Noun—A social meeting of two (or more) whale-ships, generally on a cruising ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boat’s crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.

This cordial meeting is unique to whale-ships.  Other types of sea craft (including pirate ships, men-of-war, merchant vessels, and slave ships) tend to have more standoffish and hostile relationships with their fellow sea-farers.

Chapter 54: The Town-Ho's Story

While rounding the Cape of Good Hope, a busy thoroughfare for ships, the Pequod encountered a ship called the Town-Ho, and the two ships had a "gam"--an informal meeting at sea.  During this gam, one of the Town-Ho's crew related a story, secretly, to Tashtego the harpooneer, who mumbled it in his sleep, after which the story circulated among the Pequod's crew.  The version Ishmael tells is one he told years later to several Spanish dons in Lima, Peru.  In short, this is a somewhat unreliable story, as its being told third-hand several years after the fact.  Nevertheless, it's a whale of a tale.  Here it is...

Years ago, on the Nantucket-based ship The Town-Ho, a conflict arose between the ship's mate (an ugly man named Radney) and a crew member named Steelkilt, a valiant and handsome man from Buffalo, New York.  Steelkilt was a hardy canaller, meaning he sailed the Erie Canal, and the Great Lakes of America.  He was known as a "Lake Man."  Despite his higher ranking, Radney was jealous of Steelkilt, and Steelkilt often made fun of Radney.  Basically, the two men despised one another.

One day, the Town-Ho sprung a minor leak.  Steelkilt and his fellow crew members worked shifts to pump out the water, and they were supervised by Radney.  After Steelkilt had insulted Radney one too many times, the enraged mate ordered the Lake Man to do the demeaning and menial task of sweeping and shoveling the deck.  The proud Lake Man refused on principle.  Enraged, Radney wielded a hammer and commanded Steelkilt to comply.  Steelkilt said he would murder Radney if the hammer even touched his face.  Foolishly, Radney touched the hammer to his face.  The next moment, Steelkilt broke the mate's jaw.

A brawl ensued between supporters of Steelkilt and supporters of Radney.  The Town-Ho had a mutiny on its hands.  Steelkilt and his fellow Lake Men were tied up, flogged, and imprisoned for a time in the lower deck.  Eventually they were released.  It was in the midst of this conflict that, one day, a sailor of the Town-Ho spotted the white whale, Moby Dick himself!  In pursuit, Radney was eaten by the monster, thus giving Steelkilt the justice he sought.  When the Town-Ho reached land, Steelkilt and his fellow Lake Men deserted, and the captain picked up a new group of sailors, who were from Tahiti.

The Town-Ho's Story first appeared as a short story in Harper's.

Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales

In this chapter, Melville describes and criticizes various artistic representations of whales, stretching from ancient Indian temples to 19th century works of natural history.  None of these representations are truly accurate, the author concludes.  Here are some of the examples he gives of "monstrous pictures of whales"...

1.) The Matse Avatar, from India.  A depiction of an incarnation of the god Vishnu.

2.) The painting "Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the Sea Monster or Whale" by Guido Reni (1635).

3.) The painting "Perseus Descending" by William Hogarth (1697-1764).

4.) Drawings of whales by Scottish physician/naturalist Sir Robert Sibbald (1641-1722)

5.) Jonah and the whale illustrations from old Bibles.

6.) Illustrations from the travel writings of 17th century writer John Harris.

7.) Illustrations from A Voyage Round Cape Horn into the South Seas for the Purpose of Extending the Spermacetti Whale Fisheries by Captain James Colnett.

8.) Illustrations from Oliver Goldsmith's An History of the Earth and Animated Nature.

9.) Illustrations from A Natural History of Whales by Bernard Germain de Lacepede.

10.) Illustrations from Frederic Cuvier's Dictionary of Natural Science.

Melville concludes that the reason why no one had created a satisfactory picture of a whale was because (in his day) portraits of whales were made from dead (beached) whales, as opposed to living creatures.  "The great leviathan," he writes, "is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last."  The best way to see a whale, he concludes, is to go whaling.

Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales; and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

As the lengthy title suggests, this chapter gives a few examples of artistic renderings of whales that are more life-like (i.e. less erroneous) than the pictures listed in the previous chapter.  Here are some of them.

1.) Illustrations from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale (1838).

2.) The engravings of American travel writer John Ross Browne.

3.) The illustrations of English explorer William Scoresby.

3.) The paintings of  French artist Ambroise Louis Garneray.

4.) The paintings of another French artist named H. Durand.

Chapter 57: Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone, in Mountains; in Stars

In this chapter, the author continues describing artistic representations of whales.  While the previous two chapters focused on published works of fine art, this one focuses more on what might be called "folk art" representations of whales, of which here are a few examples:

1.) A hand-painted sign held by a crippled beggar in London, depicting how his leg was eaten by a whale.

2.) Carvings of whales on actual whale's teeth done by whalemen during their leisure hours.  

3.) Wooden whales, carved from driftwood.

4.) Brass whales, used as door knockers.

5.) Sheet-iron whales used on old churches as weathervanes.

6.) Petrified/fossilized whales created by the earth's geology.

7.) Mountains and earthforms that resemble whales.

8.) Whale constellations seen in starry skies.

Ishmael concludes this chapter with a wild desire to mount a whale of stars and ride it to heaven: "With a frigate's anchors for my bridle-bits and fasces of harpoons for spurs, would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies, to see whether the fabled heavens with all their countless tents really lie encamped beyond my mortal sight!"

Chapter 58: Brit

As the Pequod sails on, it enters waters that are covered, for miles and miles, with a yellow substance called brit— small crustaceans that right whales feed upon.  Ishmael is intrigued by the strange yellow blanket on the water: “we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat.”  A pod of right whales appears the next day, and Ishmael marvels at the giants, eating brit and looking like mountains on the sea.  The yellow brit and the swimming whales create the illusion of land.

And here Ishmael begins to ponder the philosophical differences between land (which is visible and known) and the sea (which is largely invisible and unknown).  Humans still carry within them a primal sense of wonder and horror at the vast unknown of the ocean.  Ishmael compares this land/sea dichotomy to human consciousness—our conscious mind is like a tiny island of “known” sitting upon a vast ocean of subconscious “unknown”.  In this way, Melville is sort of predicting basic ideas of psychologist Sigmund Freud, who theorized that much of our behavior and identity is determined by our unconscious mind—which is only glimpsed in dreams.

Melville puts it this way: “Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that aisle, thou canst never return!”

Chapter 59: Squid

The Pequod sailed on through calmer waters, toward the island of Java.  One morning, while on look-out, the harpooner Daggoo spotted a large, white form in the water.  “There!” he called out, “There again!  There she breaches!  Right ahead!  The White Whale, the White Whale!”  Quickly, captain Ahab gave the order for the four harpoon boats to lower in pursuit of the monster.

However, as they approached the creature, they noticed that it was not the white whale, but rather a giant squid!  Because these creatures were so rarely seen, some of the sailors, including Starbuck, were quite afraid.  Captain Ahab gave the order to return to the ship.  Then Ishmael pondered the mysterious giant squid, about whom so little was known.  He supposed that perhaps the giant squid was the inspiration for fearsome sea monsters of mythology like the Kraken.

Chapter 60: The Whale-Line

In this chapter, the author describes, in detail, a seemingly mundane thing called the “whale-line”.  This is simply the rope which connects the harpoon to the boat.  These strong ropes used to be made of hemp, but in Melville’s day they were made of something called Manilla.  The whale-line is actually really important because, if it is not coiled or handled properly, it can maim, dismember, or drag a man overboard, when in pursuit of a whale.  Ishmael compares the omni-present danger of the whale-line to the more general omni-present dangers of life:

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines.  All are born with halters around their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.  And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

Chapter 61: Stubb Kills a Whale

In this chapter, the Pequod encounters its first sperm whale, and gives chase!  Harpoon boats are lowered and it is Stubb’s boat that ultimately captures and kills the whale.  It’s a action-packed and bloody scene.  Though the crew of the Pequod is elated at their first kill, Ishmael describes the death of the whale with a hint of sadness:

“And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations.  At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air, and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea.  His heart had burst!”

After the kill, Stubb empties the ashes of his pipe into the sea “and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made.”

Chapter 62: The Dart

In this chapter, Ishmael explains how difficult and exhausting is the harpooner’s job when chasing a whale.  Not only is the harpooner expected to heave a heavy metal lance 20-30 feet with accuracy, he is also expected to do his share of rowing, shouting, and not getting killed.  Ishmael writes, “He is expected to set an example of superhuman activity…it is the harpooneer who makes the voyage.”

Ishmael proposes a new whale-ship policy regarding harpooners.  They should not be required to row or shout—only fling the harpoons.  This way, they would have more strength and focus, and would therefore be more accurate.  “To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart (harpoon),” Ishmael writes, “the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.”  This last section echoes the language of Karl Marx, and has a distinct flavor of working class rage.  Harpooneers of the world, unite!

Chapter 63: The Crotch

The title of this chapter is a reference to the part of a harpoon boat where the harpoons are stored.  Generally, harpoon boats are out-fitted with at least two harpoons (or irons).  Should the first harpoon fail to reach its mark, there is a backup.  Given the fact that the Pequod has four harpoon boats, you can imagine the chaotic intercrossing of harpoons and rope that happens during a typical whale chase.

Chapter 64: Stubb's Supper

After Stubb had killed the whale, several sailors began the slow, laborious process of lugging the giant creature to the boat, and lashing him to the side.  Captain Ahab watched over these proceedings with a hint of disappointment, for this whale was not Moby Dick: “Some vague dissatisfaction, or impatience, or despair, seeming working in him; as if the sight of that dead body reminded him that Moby Dick was yet to be slain; and though a thousand other where brought to his ship, all that would not one jot advance his grand, monomaniac object.”

Stubb, on the other hand, was elated by his kill, mainly because it meant he could eat a tasty whale steak, his favorite food.  And so the cook Fleece prepared Stubb a whale steak, while below the ship sharks feasted on the body of the dead whale.  Stubb had a somewhat humorous interaction with the cook, criticizing his grilling skills.

Stubb asked Fleece to tell the sharks to be quiet so he could enjoy his supper.  Fleece gave a humorously absurd sort of “sermon” to the sharks, telling them to be quieter and more polite.  Of course, the sharks did not heed his sermon, because they were sharks.

Chapter 65: The Whale as a Dish

In this chapter, Ishmael ponders the strangeness of eating whales and, by extension, eating fellow creatures in general.  He concludes that even the most apparently “civilized” men are actually barbaric: “Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds...Who is not a cannibal?  I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the Day of Judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground, and feastiest on their bloated livers in your pate-de-foie-gras.”

Chapter 66: The Shark Massacre

Apparently, after a whale is killed, it’s common for sharks to gather and feed upon its corpse, and this is exactly what happened to the whale Stubb killed.  To prevent the sharks from completely eating the whale, Stubb and Queequeg stood on the ship’s edge above the whale with long sharp lances and killed as many sharks as they could.  It was a horrible, bloody mess, but necessary to protect the whale from being eaten.

Chapter 67: Cutting In

This chapter describes the horribly unpleasant business of slaughtering the whale and removing its blubber in giant, bloody strips, sort of like peeling an orange.  Ishmael compares the slaughter to some ancient religious sacrifice: “You would have thought we were offering up ten thousand red oxen to the sea gods.”

Chapter 68: The Blanket

In this chapter, Ishmael describes the skin and blubber of the whale.  The “skin” is very thin and transparent.  The blubber, right below the skin, the stuff from which whale oil is derived, is thick and envelops the creature’s whole body, like a blanket.  The whale’s skin is often marked with strange etchings resembling hieroglyphs.  Ishmael writes, “By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphs upon one sperm whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate resembling the old Indian characters chiseled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi: Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.”

Ishmael ponders the importance of the whale’s “blanket” of blubber.  Because whales are warm-blooded mammals (like humans), the blubber is necessary for survival in the cold climates of arctic seas.  Ishmael sees, in this, a kind of metaphor for humans: “It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness.  Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!  Do thou, too, remain warm among ice.  Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it.  Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole.  Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”

Chapter 69: The Funeral

This short chapter is one of the most beautiful and haunting in Moby Dick.  In it, Ishmael describes how, after the whale is stripped of blubber and decapitated, its corpse is lowered into the sea and discarded.  As it slowly floats away, it is feasted upon by sharks and sea birds: “That great mass of death floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives: There’s a most doleful and most shocking funeral!…Oh, horrible vulturism of Earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free.”

After death, perhaps the whale’s skeleton may wash ashore somewhere, like a ghost: “Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.  Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend?”

"The Funeral" by Frank Stella (from Moby Dick engravings)

Chapter 70: The Sphynx

As was common practice among whalers, before Stubb’s whale was slaughtered, it was beheaded.  For a while, the great Leviathan’s head hung suspended over the side of the ship, like the head of a great Sphynx, holding untold mysteries.  When all the men had gone below deck for supper, captain Ahab stood alone on the deck and spoke to the giant decapitated whale head, and this is what he said:

“Speak, thou vast and venerable head…speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee.  Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest.  That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations…Oh head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine! …O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”

Chapter 71: The Jeroboam's Story

While captain Ahab was speaking to the decapitated whale head, a crewman spotted another whale ship in the distance.  The ship turned out to be the Jeroboam, from Nantucket.  As they approached one another, the captain of the Jeroboam (whose name was Mayhew) alerted the Pequod that there was a sickness on the ship, so they should not board one another.

When the two ships were close together, Stubb spotted a man on board the Jeroboam who had become somewhat infamous—a man who called himself Gabriel.  He had “a deep, settled, frantic delirium in his eyes.”  The crew of the Pequod had been told of this Gabriel from the previous ship they’d encountered, the Town-Ho.  Here’s Gabriel’s story…

He was raised among a religious sect called the Shakers, and came to see himself as a prophet.  Basically, he was insane.  But he managed to conceal his insanity enough to get a whaling job on the ship Jeroboam.  Soon after the ship departed from Nantucket, Gabriel showed his true colors.  He said that he was actually he archangel Gabriel, and saviour of the seas.  He commanded captain Mayhew to jump overboard.  Because of Gabriel’s insane charisma, everyone on the ship both feared and revered him.  And it was in this state of frantic disarray that the Jeroboam encountered the Pequod.

Ahab asked captain Mayhew if they’d encountered Moby Dick.  Mayhew said they had, and one of their crew had perished in the unsuccessful attempt to harpoon the beast.  Eventually, the two ships parted ways—the Jeroboam under the power of a crazy man named Gabriel, and the Pequod under the power of a crazy man named Ahab.

Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope

In order to secure a whale after it is harpooned, a large hook must be inserted into it.  In the case of the whale Stubb killed, this dangerous task fell to Queequeg, who had to stand atop the whale, while sharks snapped all around him.  The only thing keeping Queequeg safe from plunging into the shark-infested waters was a rope tied around his waist, which was also tied around the waist of Ishmael, who stood on the deck.  This rope was called the “monkey-rope."  Though neither Melville nor the fictional Ishmael invented this term, I cannot help but detect racist overtones.  Nonetheness, the idea behind the monkey-rope is that, if one person should fall, the other would also perish.  Hence, the two ship-mates had to help one another.  Their survival depended on it.

In this situation, Ishmael sees a profound philosophical significance: “So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged into a joint stock company of two…I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes.”  Being literally connected to Queequeg by a rope helped Ishmael to see that no one is truly an island.  We are all connected to others for our happiness and our survival.  This is perhaps a mild critique of the very American idea of the “rugged individual” and self-determination.  Though we may like to think of ourselves as totally self-sufficient, the truth is that our fates are often entertwined with others.

Chapter 73: Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him

In this chapter, as the lengthy title suggests, the mates Stubb and Flask pursue and kill a Right Whale, which is a little strange for a boat hunting Sperm Whales.  While hauling the whale in, they speculate on the origin of Ahab’s mysterious harpooneer Fedallah.  They believe he is the devil incarnate, come to take Ahab’s soul.  Stubb says: “Why, do you see, the old man (Ahab) is hard bent after that White Whale, and the devil there (Fedallah) is trying to come round him, and get him twap away his silver watch, or his soul, or some thing of that sort, and then he’ll surrender Moby Dick.”  Here, Ahab is indirectly compared to the fictional figure of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil.  Also, perhaps, Stubb and Flask are engaging in xenophobia, because Fedallah is foreign.

Faust sells his soul to the devil.

Chapter 74: The Sperm-Whale's Head--Contrasted View

At this point in the story, there are two decapitated whale heads hanging over opposite sides of the Pequod—a Sperm Whale head and a Right Whale head.  Ishmael takes this opportunity to do some practical cetology, by describing and contrasting the whales’ heads.  His first observation is that “there is a certain mathematical symmetry in the Sperm Whale’s which the Right Whale’s sadly lacks.”  Ishmael seems generally more impressed with the Sperm Whale.

Then he examines the eyes of the two whales, and finds them surprisingly similar—very tiny and (unlike humans) placed on either side of their gigantic heads.  Ishmael marvels at how different a whale’s perception must be, compared to a human’s: “The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound nothingness to him…Is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine to distinct prospects?…If he can, then it is as marvelous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.”

Likewise, Ishmael marvels at how tiny, almost invisible, are the whales’ ears.  “Is it not curious,” he thinks, “that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s?”  Ultimately, the jaws of the whales are removed by the sailors and the teeth extracted, to be carved into all manner of objects and sculptures by the sailors.

Chapter 75: The Right Whale's Head--Contrasted View

In this chapter, Ishmael examines the Right Whale’s decapitated head, and finds that it looks different depending on the angle at which you view it.  From one point-of-view, it looks like a giant shoe; from another, a bass viola; and from yet another, a giant oak.  One of the central concerns of the novel Moby Dick is perception—how it is colored and affected by point-of-view and prejudice.  This chapter seems to be hi-lighting this problem, as well as humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize nature; that is, to falsely attribute human qualities to non-human things, like whales.  In a humorous closing section to the chapter, Ishmael does some anthropomorphizing.  He speculates on the different whales’ philosophical outlooks, based on their facial expressions:

“I think his (the Sperm Whale’s) broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity born of a speculative indifference as to death.  But mark the other (the Right Whale’s) head’s expression.  See that amazing lower lip, pressed by accident against the vessel’s side, so as firmly to embrace the jaw.  Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death?  This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.”  This is funny because whales cannot read books of human philosophy.

Chapter 76: The Battering-Ram

Continuing his examination of the Sperm Whale’s decapitated head, Ishmael compares it to a battering-ram, hard as horses’ hooves.  It’s important to establish the hardness of the whale’s head, so the reader will not be surprised later on, when Moby Dick will do some serious ramming.

Chapter 77: The Great Heidelberg Tun

This is yet another chapter describing the Sperm Whale’s head.  The upper part, called the “case” contains the purest concentration of spermaceti oil of anywhere on the whale.  It generally yields about 500 gallons of oil, or sperm.  Ishmael compares it to "The Great Heidelberg Tun" which is a giant wine vat contained within the cellars of the Heidelberg Castle in Germany.

The Great Heidelberg Tun

Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets

And now the task fell to the Native American harpooneer Tashtego to stand atop the head of the Sperm Whale with a cutting lance.  To extract the precious oil, he had to cut a hole in the creature's massive head, then lower bucket after bucket into the hole to retrieve the spermaceti.  This Tashtego did, pulling out 80 or 90 bucketfuls of oil, which were emptied into large tubs.  When nearly all the sperm had been excavated, Tashtego slipped and fell into the whale’s head!  First, Dagoo lept to the rescue, jumping in the whale’s head to retrieve his fellow harpooneer.  However, the weight of the two men soon became too much, and the giant head plunged into the ocean, and began to sink, with Tashtego still inside!

Then the valiant Queequeg wordlessly dived into the sea, to rescue the drowning man.  Using a sharp lance, Queequeg managed, underwater, to cut a hole in the bottom of the head and pulled Tashtego out, head-first, like delivering a baby.  Thus Queequeg saved his fellow harpooneer from a watery death in the head of a whale.  Ishmael writes, “And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, the delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished."

Queequeg "delivers" Tashtego.

Chapter 79: The Prairie

Here is yet another chapter in which Ishmael observes and comments upon the physiognomy of a whale’s head.  First of all, the whale has no nose to speak of, at last not in the typical mammalian sense of a protruding thing.  The whale’s nose is atop his head—the blow-hole.  Ishmael finds the whale’s forehead, or brow, to be sublime and full of mystery.  In observing this impressive brow, he notes, “You feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.”

Chapter 80: The Nut

After examining the outside of the whale’s massive head, Ishmael speculates on the nature of the creature’s brain.  This chapter made me curious about Sperm Whale brains and intelligence.  I discovered that these whales actually have the largest brains in the world.  Their brains are five times heavier than humans.  Of course, brain size does not always directly correlate to intelligence, but this does suggest that whales are probably more intelligent than we give them credit for.

This is a preserved Sperm Whale brain.

Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin

Sailing on, the Pequod encountered a German whaling ship called the Jungfrau, or Virgin.  These Germans, being less-experienced whalers, had run out of oil for their lamps, so the Pequod gave them some oil to tide them over until they captured a whale or reached a port.  While doing this, however, a pod of Sperm Whales was seen nearby, so both ships lowered their harpoon boats and gave chase.  It was a kind of international whaling competition—Americans vs. Germans!

Trailing behind the other whales in the pod was an old, slow one with a deformed (or perhaps maimed) fin, which greatly impeded it’s swimming abilities.  The Pequod’s boats succeeded in harpooning the whale before the Germans.  The sight of this skewered, disabled whale, inspired a kind of pathos in Ishmael, who mused, “The bird has a voice, and with plaintive cries will make known her fear; but the fear of this vast dumb brute of the sea, was chained up and enchanted in him; he had not voice, save that choking respiration through his spiracle, and this made the sight of him unspeakably pitiable.”

Adding insult to injury, when the Pequod’s crew fastened the whale to the side of the ship, its great bulk was too heavy, so the sailors had to let him go, and sink needlessly to his death.  Thus, a poor, disabled whale was killed for no reason.  Ishmael comments with bitter irony on this whale’s cruel death: “But pity there was none.  For all his old age and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness to all.”  The sad truth of this whole whaling business was that human society depended upon the mass murder of these amazing creatures of the sea.

Chapter 82: The Honor and Glory of Whaling

In this chapter, Ishmael reflects on some mythic/heroic figures who were associated with whales, like Perseus (who slew a sea monster/whale to save his love Andromeda), Jonah (the biblical prophet who was swallowed and then barfed up by a whale), St. George (who slew a dragon, which Ishmael thinks may have actually been a whale), Hercules (the Greek demi-god who, like Jonah, was also swallowed and then barfed up by a whale), and lastly the Hindu god Vishnu, who incarnated himself as a sea-creature.  Thinking about all these heroes and gods, Ishmael considers himself to be in good company, as a whale man: “Perseus, St. George, Hecules, Jonah, and Vishnu! There’s a member-roll for you!  What club but the whale man’s can head off like that!”

Perseus slays the sea monster.

Chapter 83: Jonah Historically Regarded

In this chapter, Ishmael explains how some people in his day had begun to doubt the historicity of the story of Jonah and the whale.  He gives some humorous attempts by theologians to explain the story from a more “enlightened” scientific point of view.  To the question: “How could a man literally survive for three days in the stomach of a whale?” some scholars have posited…

That Jonah was not actually lodged in the whale’s belly, but in some part of his mouth, which is more survivable.

That Jonah actually took refuge in the floating body of a dead whale, like a sort of life raft.

That Jonah was not swallowed by a whale at all, but was rescued by a ship called “The Whale”.

I think that this chapter is poking fun at biblical literalists who do all kinds of crazy mental gymnastics to rationally explain stories that are clearly meant as myth and metaphor.

Chapter 84: Pitchpoling

As Queequeg was greasing the bottom of his harpoon boat, another whale was spotted, and the crew gave chase.  After harpooning the whale, the creature still swam furiously, and so Stubb brought out another weapon in his whale-slaying arsenal--a lighter wooden lance that could be thrown repeatedly at the whale, then retracted.  After spearing the whale numerous times with this lance (an action called “pitchpoling”), the poor creature bled out, and died.  Stubb was quite pleased with himself, making gross references to drinking the whale’s blood like wine.  What’s interesting about Moby Dick is how sailors like Stubb can appear both heroic and monstrous at the same time.  I think Melville was suggesting that the line separating heroes and villains is often blurrier than we’d like to admit.

Chapter 85: The Fountain

In this chapter, Ishmael ponders the strangeness of the whale’s breathing.  Like humans, whales are mammals and must breathe air.  Unlike humans, whales are able to hold their breath for enormous amounts of time in their huge lungs.  As he often does, Ishmael anthropomorphizes the whale, comparing the vapor which it expels from its blow-hole to the thoughts of famous thinkers and literary figures “He (the whale) is both ponderous and profound.  And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.”

Melville/Ishmael ends the chapter with this beautiful image: “And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts.”

Whale vapor rainbow.

Chapter 86: The Tail

This is yet another in a series of chapters in which Ishmael examines and ponders various parts of the whale’s anatomy.  In this chapter, it is the mighty tail.  On a full-grown sperm whale, the tail may grow as large as 20 feet across!  The tail being the whale’s main appendage, it is used for various purposes: propulsion, as a weapon, for touching other whales, for playing, and for diving.

Ishmael ends this chapter with a sense of frustration at his inability to truly understand the whale—the meanings of all his various movements and sounds, his internal world: “Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.”  What Ishmael is getting at is less of a scientific understanding of the whale, and more of a metaphysical one.  Ishmael is indeed a ponderous philosopher of the sea.

Chapter 87: The Grand Armada

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.

Chapter 88: Schools and Schoolmasters

In this chapter, Ishmael describes different social organizations of whales and how they group together.  These groups are called “schools”.  The first type of school consists of one full-grown male and a bunch of smaller females, who are sort of like his harem.  He impregnates them at will in an effort to produce as many offspring as possible.  Alpha whale of this type leave most of the nursing and raising duties to their females.  Occasionally, another alpha whale will challenge the “Lord” of a harem and the two will viciously fight—to the victor goes the ladies.

Another type of school consists entirely of young adult males.  They travel together quite recklessly, like a college fraternity.  When they reach full maturity, each male goes in search of his own harem.  When male whales reach advanced age, past their sexual prime, they tend to go solo, wandering the world alone, like repentant monks.

Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish

In this chapter, Ishmael states two unwritten but generally agreed-upon laws which govern the whaling industry, which are as follows:

1.) A "Fast-Fish" belongs to the party fast to it.  (In other words, a captured whale belongs to the boat who caught it).

2.) A "Loose-Fish" is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.  (In other words, an uncaught whale is fair game.)

Basically, possession is the foundation of these laws, often without regard to how a person, or group, came into possession of it.  In these simple laws of whaling, Ishmael sees the basic foundation of how humans, nations, and societies have treated/exploited one another throughout history.  Here are a few examples:

1.) For landlords, their renters’ money is a “Fast-Fish” (caught).

2.) For predatory lenders and bankers, those who lose their homes are “Fast-Fish” (caught).

3.) For the wealthy archbishop, his poor parishioners are “Fast-Fish” (caught).

4.) For England, all of Ireland is a “Fast-Fish” (caught).


1.) For Columbus in 1492, America was a “Loose-Fish” (fair game).

2.) For the Czar of Russia in the 19th century, Poland was a “Loose-Fish” (fair game).

3.) Before it became their colony, India was a “Loose-Fish” to England (fair game).

4.) After the Mexican-American War, Mexico was viewed as a “Loose-Fish by the United States (fair game).

There is a rising anger/outrage in Ishmael’s tone, suggesting that brute laws of “possession,” not true justice, have governed human power relationships throughout history.  The chapter concludes with these interesting thoughts: “What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish?  What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish?…What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish?  And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

For Columbus, the Americas were a "Loose-Fish" (fair game).

Chapter 90: Heads or Tails

In this chapter, Ishmael pokes fun at a British law of his day which stipulated that any whale caught off the English coast belonged to the royal class, regardless of who actually caught the creature.  He gives a recent example of two poor British whalers who, at great personal cost and danger, succeeded in capturing a whale and bringing to to shore.  Instead of keeping the whale, however, they were forced to give it to the local Duke.  Technically, under British law, the Duke had every right to the whale.  But, by any reasonable standard of fairness, the two poor whalers should have gotten it.  What this chapter hi-lights is that “law” and “justice” are not always the same thing.

Chapter 91: The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud

As the Pequod sailed on, they encountered a French whaling ship called the Rose-Bud, which had “captured” two dead whales.  Their rotting corpses smelled terrible.  It was a bit ironic that a ship called the Rose-Bud should carry such a pungent cargo.  The oil extracted from dead/rotting whales was of a very low quality.  And yet, there was one valuable thing that could be obtained from such whales—a substance called ambergris, which was (ironically) used in making perfumes.

Stubb hatched a plan to get the captain of the Rose-Bud to abandon his whales, so he could get the valuable ambergris.  He sailed over and boarded the Rose-Bud.  Speaking through a translator, he convinced the French captain to let go of these whales.  It’s a funny scene in which Stubb says really insulting things to the captain like “Tell him that…he’s no more fit to command a whale-ship than a St. Jago monkey…tell him from me he’s a baboon.”  The translator translates this as, “He vows and declares, Monsieur, that the other whale, the dried one, is far more deadly than the blasted one…Monsieur, he conjures us as we value our lives, to cut loose from these fish.”

In fact, Stubb and the translator were working together for mutual benefit.  When the captain agreed to let the whales go, Stubb got the valuable ambergris, and the interpreter was free from the horrible stench of rancid whale.  It was a “win-win.”

Chapter 92: Ambergris

In this chapter, Ishmael pontificates upon the strange substance extracted from the bodies of dead whales called ambergris, which was used in making perfumes, scented candles, and hair powders in the 19th century.  It’s strange that such pleasant-smelling stuff should be extracted from “the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.”  This chapter shows that many of the products of “polite society” and “civilization” are taken in rather brutal and unpleasant ways, a fact which remains true today.

Chapter 93: The Castaway

One of the jolliest members of the Pequod was a young African-American boy named Pip.  He liked to sing and play the tambourine.  But something happened which forever changed Pip’s personality, and that something was this…

When one of the oarsmen in Stubb’s harpoon boat sprained his hand, little Pip was called in as a replacement.  Never having done this job before, Pip was quite nervous and not a very effective oarsman.  The first time the boat was lowered to chase a whale, Pip got so scared that he jumped out of the boat, whereupon he got tangled in the whale-line and almost strangled to death.  The harpooneer Tashtego reluctantly cut him loose, which meant that the whale escaped.  Pip was scolded by Stubb and told that, should he jump overboard again, he would be left.

Sure enough, the next time the boat gave chase, Pip (again) jumped overboard and no one saved him.  He was left alone in the vast ocean.  Sadly, a whale was seen as much more valuable than an African American boy, as Stubb explained: “We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama.”  This is, of course, a reference to slavery, which was still legal in the 1850s, when Moby Dick is set.

So Pip was left adrift in the immense sea.  This experience profoundly traumatized him.  Even after he was rescued by the Pequod, he was never the same, as Ishmael comments, “From that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot.”  And yet, in his traumatized insanity, Ishmael supposes, Pip saw something divine and transcendent:

"The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miserman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to celestial though, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”

Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand

This chapter describes a scene in which Ishmael and other sailors on the Pequod are dipping their hands in tubs of whale oil to squeeze out the lumps.  Although this may sound like a gross task, it is described as actually very pleasant.  The oil smells sweet and feels good on the hands.  This communal activity, like stomping grapes into wine, creates a kind of intimacy and affection among the men.  Ishmael muses:

“I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.  Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social ascerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy!  Come, let us squeeze hands all round; nay let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

Chapter 95: The Cassock

A cassock is the name given to the garments certain priests wear while performing their priestly duties.  In this chapter, a different sort of cassock is worn for a different sort of “priestly” function.  This holy man is the mincer, who cuts the whale blubber into thin sheets (or “Bible leaves”) before they are melted into oil.

What is particularly unique about the mincer is his garment—the skin of the whale’s huge penis, which he fashions into a kind of robe.  Ishmael jokes: “Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!”


  1. Jesse,

    I can't overstate how much these entries added to my first-time reading of this book. I loved the illustrations, hearing your thoughts, and having threads brought out that I may have missed. Here's hoping you one day complete this project.