“Cetology,” as Ishmael explains, is “the science of whales.” In this and subsequent science-centered chapters in the book, Ishmael attempts to classify whales scientifically. He includes quotations from various writings on the whale, adding that others might be able to revise this draft of a classification system. Rather than using the Linnaean classifications of family, genus, and species—which were already the standard in Melville’s time—Ishmael divides whales into different “chapters” of three distinct “books”: the Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo.
“The Specksynder” resembles the previous chapter, but it analyzes the whaling industry rather than whales. Beginning with trivia about the changing role of the specksynder (literally, “fat-cutter”), who used to be chief harpooner and captain, Ishmael moves on to a discussion of onboard leadership styles. He notes that the dependence of whalers upon one another for successful hunting and therefore wages begets its own discipline, and that a whaling ship is less hierarchical than other vessels. Nevertheless, many captains make a great show of their rank. Ahab doesn’t flaunt his superiority, although he can be a tyrant. In fact, Ishmael admits that it can be hard to see exactly what is remarkable about Ahab: one must “dive . . . for [it] in the deep.”
This chapter shows the ship’s officers at dinner. Meals are a rigid affair over which Ahab presides: no one talks, and a strict order of service is followed. After the officers finish eating, the table is relaid for the harpooners, who eat heartily, intimidating the cook with their voraciousness. The cabin is not a comfortable place for anyone, as it is Ahab’s territory and Ahab is “inaccessible,” “an alien.”
Ishmael describes his first post on the masthead (the top of the ship’s masts) watching for whales. He provides a history of mastheads and their role on whaling ships. He proceeds to discuss statues, hermits, and ancient Egyptians as prior “mast-head standers.” The masthead is a place where whalers spend a great deal of time, and Ishmael laments its lack of comforts: on a South Seas ship, the masthead offers only two small pegs upon which to stand. He compares this setup to that of other ships, which have miniature cabins atop the masts. Ishmael admits that he himself daydreams too much to keep a good watch, and he warns captains against hiring “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men,” who are likely to miss whales in the vicinity.
Ahab finally makes an official appearance before the men. First, he stirs the crew by calling out simple questions about their mission, to which they respond in unison. He then presents a Spanish gold doubloon, proclaiming, “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw . . . he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!” The men cheer, and the harpooners ask if it is Moby Dick that Ahab seeks. Ahab then confesses, in response to Starbuck’s query, that it was indeed Moby Dick who stripped him of his leg, and he announces his quest to hunt the whale down. The men shout together that they will hunt with Ahab, though Starbuck protests that he “came here to hunt whales, not [his] commander’s vengeance.” Ahab commences a ritual that binds the crew together: he orders all of his men to drink from one flagon that gets passed around. Telling the harpooners to cross their lances before him, Ahab grasps the weapons and anoints Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo “my three pagan kinsmen there—yon three most honorable gentlemen and noble men.” He then makes them take the iron off of the harpoons to use as drinking goblets. They all drink together as Ahab proclaims, “God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”
Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush!
“Sunset” begins with a stage direction that sets Ahab alone near a window and consists of a melancholy soliloquy by Ahab. He notes that everyone thinks that he is mad and that he agrees with them to a certain extent. He self-consciously calls himself “demoniac” and “madness maddened.” He reveals that it was foretold that he would be dismembered by a whale. He proclaims, however, that he will be both “prophet” and “fulfiller” of Moby Dick’s destiny. He accepts the inequality of the battle and challenges Moby Dick, claiming that the whale cannot avoid his fate: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.”
Probably the best book ever written.Profound psychological insights into human behaviour .
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Frankly, I find Moby Dick to be a very enigmatic story, but it was required reading for my college degree and I am still trying to understand the importance of this novel.
A man obsessed with a white whale must be a metaphor for man's quest, but it is still puzzling to me.
I am hoping to Spark Notes can consolidate and distill the message, but life always has more pressing matters for me to attend to than deciphering old texts.
Can anyone tell me why this enduring novel is important - in 25 words or less?