“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.”
“Dusk” is Starbuck’s monologue. Though he fears that all will turn out ill, he feels inextricably bound to Ahab, compelled to help him to “his impious end.” When he hears the revelry coming from the crew’s forecastle, he laments the whole doomed voyage and the “latent horror” in life.
“First Night-Watch” is Stubb’s monologue, providing yet another perspective on the voyage. Stubb, believing all to be “predestinated,” can only laugh and sing a ditty.
“Midnight, Forecastle” is scripted like a scene from a play and presents the sailors, all of different nationalities, showing off and singing together. They get into a fight when a Spanish sailor makes fun of Daggoo. The onset of a storm, however, halts their fighting and makes them tend to the ship. Pip asks the “big white God,” who may be either God or Ahab, to “have mercy on this small black boy.”
“Cetology” seems to be a grandiose digression, a way for Ishmael to show off his knowledge and his literary bent. The use of publishing terminology (the category names Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo come from the different sizes of books produced by nineteenth-century printers) suggests the arbitrariness of human attempts to understand and classify the natural world. For Ishmael, though, the meaning lies not in the final classification but in the act of classifying, which signifies hope and resistance to futility. The classification also suggests that humans, in their imperfection, need such aids to understanding, lest they be lost in a deep and fathomless sea of information and phenomena.
With the statement of his quest, Ahab reveals his motivation to be considerably more complicated than resentment at losing his leg. Ahab’s desire to strike at the world’s malevolent agency indicates his profound intelligence and the philosophical reach of his mind; he looks for hidden realities beneath superficial appearances. At the same time, his sentiments suggest delusion and madness. One of the puzzling questions presented by his soliloquy is whether God is the malevolent agency against which Ahab seeks to strike out. Ahab echoes both Hamlet, in his probing of the metaphysical truths underlying everyday appearances, and Iago, in his absolute rejection of piety and morality and his manipulation of others in pursuit of his goal. In any case, Ahab strives to exceed the limits proscribed for human beings by conventional morality and religion.
Beginning with Chapter 36, the chapters in this section feature stage directions and other devices borrowed from plays. These elements heighten the reader’s awareness that the book is becoming more dramatic: conflicts emerge between the characters, and Ahab self-consciously gives a performance to unite and manipulate his crew. These chapters often echo Shakespeare, both in their general style and in specific allusions to Shakespeare’s plays. Ahab’s soliloquy, in particular, masterfully imitates Shakespearean cadences and rhythms. Both Ahab and Starbuck are given soliloquy-style monologues in these chapters, each getting the chance to plead his case to the audience, as it were, as eloquently as he can.