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The two whale heads hanging from the Pequod provide an opportunity for Ishmael to give a lesson on “practical cetology.” The sperm whale has a great well of sperm, ivory teeth, a long lower jaw, and one external spout hole. Ishmael describes the sperm whale as having “more character” than the right whale, as well as a “pervading dignity” based on the “mathematical symmetry” of its head. He wonders at the whale’s small eyes, which are placed on opposite sides of its head, affording the whale a strange visual perspective. He notes also that the external portion of the whale’s ear is tiny, comprised of only a small pinhole.
The right whale, on the other hand, Ishmael explains, has bones in its mouth shaped like Venetian blinds, a huge lower lip, a tongue, and two external spout holes. He likens the right whale to a Stoic and the sperm whale to a “Platonian.”
Ishmael then points out that the blunt, large, wall-like part of the sperm whale’s head seems to be just a “wad.” In actuality, inside the thin, sturdy casing is a “mass of tremendous life.” Ishmael notes that the whale’s head, like many other things in nature, derives its strength from its flexibility and ability to be compressed and change shape.
Ishmael continues his survey by noting that the upper part of a whale’s head has two subdivisions: the case and the junk. He compares the case to the “Great Heidelburgh Tun,” a famous German wine vessel of enormous capacity. The case—which contains a reservoir of highly prized spermaceti, a valuable waxlike substance found in the oil—is carefully tapped once the whale’s head has been suspended out of the water. The junk also contains oil, but this oil is trapped in a honeycomb of tough fibers.
Ishmael describes Tashtego’s tapping of the case. The sperm that it contains is lifted from the whale’s head, which still dangles alongside the ship, to the deck by a relay of buckets. In tapping this whale, Tashtego accidentally falls into the case, which is at least twenty feet deep. In a panic, Daggoo clears the tangled lines and tries to get a line inside the head to Tashtego, but the tackle holding the head aloft breaks, and the great mass falls into the ocean. Queequeg dives in and manages to save Tashtego by cutting into the slowly sinking head and “delivering” Tashtego as a doctor would a baby.
Ishmael applies the nineteenth-century arts of physiognomy (the art of judging human character from facial features) and phrenology (the study of the shape of the skull, based on the belief that it reveals character and mental capacity) to the whale. He considers the whale’s features and, by means of physiognomic and phrenological analysis, concludes that the sperm whale’s large, clear brow gives it the dignity of a god and that its “pyramidical silence” demonstrates its genius. But Ishmael then abandons this line of analysis, saying that he isn’t a professional, and dares the reader to decipher the “hieroglyphics” of the sperm whale’s brow.
Ishmael then turns to the whale’s skull, calling the whale’s brow “false” because there really isn’t much in the skull besides the sperm—its brain is only about ten inches across and is hidden behind some twenty feet of forehead. Ishmael then says that he would rather feel a man’s spine than his skull to try to know him. If creatures were judged by their spines rather than their brains, he argues, people would discount the smallness of the whale’s brain and admire the magnitude of his spinal cord. He believes that the whale’s hump signifies its indomitable spirit.
The Jungfrau (Virgin) is out of oil, as she has had no success in catching whales. Her captain boards the Pequod to beg for some. Ahab asks about the White Whale, but the Jungfrau has no information. Almost immediately after the captain of the Jungfrau steps off the Pequod’s deck, whales are sighted, and the captain goes after them desperately. The Pequod also gives chase and succeeds in harpooning a slower whale before the Germans can catch it. The whale is old, blind, and covered with growths, and in its flesh the crew finds an ancient-looking stone harpoon point. After bringing the carcass alongside the ship, the crew discovers that the whale is sinking and dragging the ship down with it. Ishmael then notes that it is impossible to predict which whales will sink. The inexperienced crew of the Jungfrau then starts chasing a finback, a whale that to the unskilled observer resembles a sperm whale but is too fast a swimmer to be caught.
Though he attempts simply to describe the whale heads accurately, Ishmael is soon tempted into making imaginative comparisons between the heads and schools of classical philosophy (Stoic and “Platonian.”) Additionally, phrenology and physiognomy, popular in the nineteenth century, are only pseudoscientific. Physiognomy was widely used in the study of criminal behavior and as a justification of discrimination against the poor and against certain racial groups. Likewise, phrenology was also used to justify racial inequality, and gave rise to the judgmental terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow.” As such, these disciplines, which developed out of subjective and therefore biased principles, hardly constitute rational inquiry.
As he considers the whale, Ishmael continuously probes deeper. From the outer surface of the skin, he moves in to the blubber; from the outer skull, he moves in to the “nut” or brain. This inward progression suggests an attempt to get at the heart, or inner meaning, of things and recalls Ahab’s statement that he must “strike through the mask,” or outward appearance. Ishmael explicitly connects this mode of investigation to reading. Phrenology and physiognomy, he says, are simply alternate forms of reading; instead of reading books, one reads skulls and faces. In saying “I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can,” Ishmael offers a challenge to his reader to make sense of the bumps and curves of Moby-Dick. The connection between reading and these pseudosciences is a warning, though, that reading is subject to the reader’s own biases. The multiplicity of readings of the whale’s head, each based on a different discipline or a different set of principles, is a reminder that any single approach is insufficient and that an interdisciplinary approach may yield the most fruitful interpretations.
Read more about how Ishmael uses a variety of disciplines in his attempts to understand the essential nature of the whale.
The rescue of Tashtego from the sinking whale’s head is one of the most unusual moments of the novel, both in terms of the action itself and the language used to describe it. Ishmael describes the process as a rebirth, an exercise in “obstetrics.” This depiction recalls Ishmael’s earlier notion that whalers are men already dead. Tashtego, like the biblical Lazarus, has died and been reborn, and any extra days of his life are a gift. His rebirth also parodies religious images of resurrection. Tashtego is “delivered” from death not by Christ but by a fellow man—a non-Christian at that. Finally, Ishmael’s obstetrics comparison points to a heightened level of linguistic play that characterizes much of the rest of the novel. As the men of the Pequod work together, their experience comes to encompass metaphorically all aspects of life, from birth to sexual maturation to death. Ishmael’s language reflects this broad experience and mediates between the crude speech of real sailors, the aesthetic demands of the novel, and the genteel sensibilities of Melville’s nineteenth-century reader.
Juxtaposed as it is with Tashtego’s rescue, the encounter with the Jungfrau is subtly humorous, as the “virgin” ship would have no need for an obstetrician. The Jungfrau and the Pequod can be read, respectively, as innocence and experience. The naive Jungfrau chases illusions and engages in frivolous activities, while the more worldly Pequod austerely chases death. The whale for which the Pequod competes against the Jungfrau provides one of the most dramatic incidents of foreshadowing in the narrative so far. As if out of vengeance for its death, the whale seems to intentionally sink the Pequod. Given the description of the dying whale that Ishmael has just offered, in which he details the creature’s humanlike suffering, this seeming vengeance is not at all surprising—the natural world is as vengeful as Ahab.
Read more about the symbolism behind the Pequoud.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!