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Ishmael considers the heroic history of whaling. He draws from Greek mythology, popular British legend, the Judeo-Christian Bible, and Hindu mythology: Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnu (whose name Melville spells “Vishnoo”) can all be considered whalemen based on the stories told about their exploits.
Ishmael examines the Jonah story—which has shadowed the novel ever since the “Extracts” and Father Mapple’s sermon in New Bedford—through the eyes of an old Sag Harbor whaleman who questions the tale based on his personal experience. Sag Harbor, as Ishmael calls him, doesn’t believe that a whale of the kind described in the Bible could swallow a man, and he thinks that a whale’s gastric juices would not permit a man to survive in the whale’s stomach. Ishmael details various theologians’ arcane responses to such practical questions.
Ishmael describes the process of oiling a harpoon boat’s underside to increase speed. He reports that Queequeg performs this task carefully, seemingly with an awareness that the Pequod will encounter whales later that day. Stubb harpoons a fast and tireless whale. In order to capture it, he must “pitchpole” it by throwing a long lance from the jerking boat to secure the running whale. Stubb’s lance strikes home, and the whale spouts blood.
With an attempt at scientific precision, Ishmael discusses how whales spout. He cannot define exactly what the spout is, so he has to put forward a hypothesis: the spout is nothing but mist, like the “semi-visible steam” emitted from the head of such ponderous beings as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and even himself.
Ishmael then considers the opposite end of the animal, celebrating the whale’s most famous part: its tail. He admires its combination of power and grace, and muses that it represents the whale’s attempts to reach to heaven—the tail is often seen protruding toward the skies. Whether this positioning is viewed as an act of angelic adoration or demoniac defiance (like the shaking of a fist) on the whale’s part depends on the mood of the spectator. Ishmael notes that the tail is the sperm whale’s most frequent means of inflicting injury upon men.
When the Pequod sails through the straits of Sunda (near Indonesia) without pulling into any port, Ishmael takes the opportunity to discuss the isolation and self-containment of a whaling ship. While in the straits, the Pequod encounters a great herd of sperm whales swimming in a circle (the “Grand Armada”), but, as the ship chases the whales, it is itself pursued by Malay pirates. The Pequod escapes the pirates and launches boats after the whales, somehow ending up inside their circle, a placid lake. One harpooned whale flounders in pain, causing panic among the whole herd. The boats in the middle are in danger but manage to escape the chaos. They “drugg” the whales by attaching lines with large blocks of wood attached, which provide resistance and tire the swimming whales. The whalemen also try to “waif” the whales, marking them with pennoned poles as the Pequod’s, to be taken later. They succeed in capturing only one whale.
Ishmael takes a moment to explain some whaling terms, beginning with “schools” of whales. Schools are typically composed of one male—the “schoolmaster” or “lord”—and numerous females, the “harem.” When whalers find a school, they hunt only the females and calves, as the males are too large and dangerous. As the male whales age, they leave their harems behind and become solitary, ill-tempered wanderers. The all-male schools are like a “mob of young collegians.” The major difference between the males and the females, according to Ishmael, is that males abandon injured comrades while females do not, even risking their own lives to aid and comfort a friend.
Ishmael takes some time to explain his reference to “waifs” in Chapter 87. He goes on to talk about whaling codes past and present, which say that a “Fast-Fish” belongs to the party fast to it (the party that has laid claim to it) and a “Loose-Fish” is fair game for anybody who can catch it. A fish is “fast” when it is physically connected to the party after it or when it bears a waif, or marker. Lawyerlike, Ishmael cites precedents and stories to show how difficult it is to maintain rules, especially when they admit so much ambiguity. Metaphorically, everything in the world can be conceptualized according to the code that judges possession to be the sole legal criterion of ownership. Even entire nations, Ishmael observes, can be classified as “Fast-Fish” or “Loose-Fish” and colonized accordingly by more powerful nations.
Ishmael elaborates upon the strange fishing laws of England, which state that any whale or sturgeon captured on its coast is “fast” and belongs to England. The head must be given to the king and the tail to the queen, leaving nothing for the hunter. Ishmael tells the story of some poor whalemen who lost all profits from their hard-earned whale to a wealthy duke.
The Pequod encounters a French ship, the Bouton de Rose (Rose-Button or Rose-Bud), from which a terrible stench arises. This ship has two whales alongside: one “blasted whale” (a whale that died unmolested on the sea) that is going to have nothing useful in it and one whale that died from indigestion. Stubb asks a sailor aboard the Rose-Bud if they have any news of Moby Dick. The man answers that they have never heard of the White Whale. Crafty Stubb asks why the man is trying to get oil out of these whales when clearly there is none in either. The sailor replies that his captain, on his first trip, will not believe the sailor’s own statements that the whales are worthless. Stubb goes aboard to tell the captain that the whales are worthless, although he knows something that the other sailor doesn’t: the second whale might contain ambergris, a valuable substance found in the intestines of sick whales. Stubb gets the sailor to help him trick the French captain into thinking that the “blasted” whales pose a threat of infection to the crew. The captain dumps the whales and Stubb, pretending to be helpful, has the Pequod’s boats tow the second whale away. As soon as the Rose-Bud leaves, Stubb ties up to the second whale and finds the sweet-smelling ambergris inside it.
Ishmael explains that ambergris, though it looks like mottled cheese and comes from the bowels of whales, is actually used for perfumes. He ponders the origin of the idea that whales smell bad. In the past, whaling vessels were unable to render blubber into oil at sea, and the rotting blubber created a powerful stench when they arrived in port. The rendered oil, however, is odorless and a natural cleanser. Ishmael notes that live whales, like beautiful women, actually smell pleasantly musky.
Chapters 82 and 83 explore ways in which texts are misread and distorted. The story of Jonah is the subject of Father Mapple’s sermon in Chapter 9, and Mapple himself might be regarded as the ideal reader. His imagination seizes upon what is important in a story without getting bogged down in extraneous details. Sag Harbor, in contrast, is so lost in technical objections that he misses the symbolic meaning of the Jonah story. The theologians whom Ishmael cites to counter Sag Harbor seem equally ludicrous, since they too ignore the story’s underlying message, spinning ever more contorted explanations to maintain that every detail of the story is true. In Chapter 82, Ishmael himself is guilty of similar distortions when he ignores the totality of the careers of Hercules, St. George, and others to argue that they are whalemen.
The imagery in this section stresses ambiguity. Death and birth are connected as the blood of the panicked, hurt whales mingles with the milk that the calves are drinking when the “Grand Armada” of whales is attacked. When the Pequod chases the whales, it is in turn chased by pirates, illustrating that ocean life involves a repeating cycle of events; we thus come to understand the story of the Pequod from a larger, more philosophical perspective. This interchangeability of parts also suggests some equivalence between the men on the Pequod and the whales. Indeed, particularly in the chapter on “Schools and Schoolmasters,” Ishmael gives the whale a range of human qualities. This anthropomorphizing (giving human attributes to nonhuman entities) suggests that hunting whales is exploitative and even murderous. Critics have suggested that Moby-Dick can be read as an analogue to other forms of exploitation by white men, such as slavery, colonialism, and territorial expansion.
Read more about the symbolism behind Moby Dick.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!