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.
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.