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Ishmael tries to understand the whale by measuring its bones. In an effort to bolster his credibility in describing the whale, he tells of a visit to his friend Tranquo, king of Tranque (apparently a fictional place). In Tranque, a large sperm whale skeleton is used as a temple, with its skull as an altar. Although the priests protested, claiming that it is impossible to measure God, Ishmael took the whale’s dimensions and had them tattooed on his right arm. He had the dimensions recorded in short form because he wished to save as much space on his body as possible for “a blank page for a poem [he] was then composing.”
Ishmael offers his findings, based on the skeleton of the whale that he measured in Tranque. He believes that the largest sperm whales are around ninety tons, and “would considerably outweigh the combined population of a whole village of one thousand one hundred inhabitants.” He then gives detailed dimensions of all parts of the whale’s skeleton. These bones, he cautions, give only a partial picture of the whale, since so much flesh is wrapped around them and they don’t capture the essence of the living animal. He adds that a person cannot find a good representation of a whale in its entirety.
Ishmael admits that he is “manhandling” the whale in his description, but he says that he is doing the best that he knows how. He decides to look at the Fossil Whale from an “archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view.” He states that it is impossible for him to exaggerate with the words that he uses to describe the whale because the whale itself is so grand. He establishes his credentials as a geologist and presents his findings. Once again, he is unsatisfied with the picture of the whale that he has created: “the skeleton of the whale furnishes but little clue to the shape of his fully invested body.” This chapter gives a sense of the whale’s age as a species and his pedigree, and allows Ishmael to meditate on time as a construct of man.
In awe of his subject, Ishmael finally admits defeat in his attempts to capture the whale through description. Now he questions whether such a fabulous monster will remain on the earth and if, as reports have it, its size is diminishing over time. Based on the fact that man and other animals have actually gotten larger throughout history, Ishmael believes that it is not likely that the whale has diminished in size. As for the whale’s continued survival, Ishmael says that though whales may not travel in herds anymore and though their haunts may have changed, they remain nonetheless. He believes that their survival owes to the new home base they have established at the poles, where man cannot penetrate. He also notes that other large mammals have been extensively hunted and that the whale population is likely not in danger because it has an enormous home environment and because many generations of whales are alive at the same time. In fact, whales are particularly likely to endure—if there is another Noah’s flood, Ishmael remarks, whales will not drown.
Ahab asks the carpenter to make him a new leg, as the one that he uses is not trustworthy. After hitting it heavily on the boat’s wooden floor when he returned from the Samuel Enderby, Ahab feels that his leg won’t continue to hold together. Indeed, just before the Pequod sailed from Nantucket, Ishmael relates, Ahab had been found lying on the ground with the whalebone leg twisted around and almost piercing his groin.
The carpenter, the do-it-all man on the ship, has to make Ahab a new prosthetic leg. The carpenter is an able man, but he views everything, even parts of the human body, as pieces of a machine.
In this playlike scene, Ahab approaches the carpenter to be fitted for his new leg. He abuses the carpenter and discourses on hell and the feeling of a ghost leg. When Ahab leaves, the carpenter muses on the captain’s queerness.
Sailors discover that the oil casks in the hold are leaking. Starbuck informs Ahab and suggests that they stop to fix them, but Ahab refuses to stop, saying that he doesn’t care about the owners or profit. Starbuck objects, and Ahab points a musket at him. Says Starbuck, “I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.” After Starbuck departs, Ahab abruptly gives in and orders the casks repaired. Ishmael speculates that Ahab’s decision was a “prudential policy” to avoid angering the crew.
While the repairs are being made to the casks, Queequeg falls ill. Thinking he is going to die, he orders a coffin made and fills it with his harpoon, his idol, and various other important possessions. He lies in it and closes the cover, and Pip dances around the coffin. Pip asks Queequeg to look for the former’s old, sane self in paradise after he dies. Queequeg soon feels well again and emerges from his coffin. Ishmael attributes this recovery to Queequeg’s “savage” nature—Queequeg claims that he has willed himself back to health. Queequeg uses the coffin as a chest for his belongings and sets about copying the tattoos on his body onto the lid of the coffin. The tattoos were done by a prophet among his people and are supposed to depict “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”
Ishmael ponders the meditative, serene Pacific Ocean. The sea promotes dreaminess and seems like heaven to him. Ishmael considers Ahab, noting that no such calming thoughts stir the captain’s brain.
Ishmael then describes the Pequod’s blacksmith, whose life on land disintegrated after he turned to drink. Echoing his own initial reasons for shipping aboard the Pequod, Ishmael explains that the sea beckons to brokenhearted men who long for death but cannot commit suicide.
Ahab asks the blacksmith to make a special harpoon with which to kill the White Whale. He gives the blacksmith the stubs of the nails of racehorse shoes, the toughest steel known, with which to make the weapon. Although Ahab gives the blacksmith directions, he soon takes over the crafting of the harpoon himself, hammering the steel on the anvil and tempering it with the blood of the three harpooners instead of water. The scene ends with Pip’s laughter ringing through the ship.
The dreaminess of the sea masks its ferocity. Ishmael speaks of the sea as “gilt” because it looks golden in the sunset and is falsely calm. The soothing scene inspires Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubbs to address the sea philosophically, each in his characteristic way.
In the first four chapters in this section, Ishmael continues to search for a way to represent the whale in its totality. He also becomes more concerned with conceptualizing what he does as a writer and what gives his words authority. Just as the Tranque priests claim that God cannot be measured, Ishmael proves that the whale cannot be comprehended in its totality by means of an empirical description of its parts. However, such partial details are all that a writer has to work with.
Ishmael establishes his authority to write about the skeletons and fossil history of whales by recounting his trip to Tranque and his work as a stonemason and trench-digger. While these credentials are clearly ridiculous—Tranque is fictional, and a trench-digger cannot claim to be an expert on fossils—they point to his growing attention to the task of writing. In Chapter 85, Ishmael refers to the writer as a “profound being” who has little to say to the world but is “forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living.” But in later chapters he seems unsure of his own profundity, focusing instead on experience as the source of narrative. He explains his own choice of tone and diction as expanding to fit his subject—the whale—which is both physically and symbolically enormous.
In Ishmael’s narrative, tattoos combine writing and experience in unexpected ways. The measurements tattooed on his arm make Ishmael’s body a living record of his experience. Moreover, he speaks of his plan to tattoo a much longer document on his body at some point in the future. Tattooing, as mentioned earlier, was seen in the nineteenth century as an irreversible mark of difference, testifying to an individual’s separation from conventional white society. Ishmael’s tattoos serve as a reminder that he has had experiences very different from those of a typical white man. Queequeg’s tattoos also function as a record of experience and knowledge. They depict his culture’s understanding of the universe and truth. Tradition and learning are passed on from person to person, and every person is a book, albeit in not quite so literal a fashion as Queequeg. Having no one from his home to whom he can pass on the knowledge inscribed on his body, Queequeg copies his tattoos onto his coffin, the symbol of his inevitable death. Appropriately, the coffin survives to the end of the novel, enabling the information carved on its lid to survive as well, just as the novel that Ishmael writes will survive his eventual death.
Read more about Queequeg’s coffin as a symbol.
In these chapters, scenes of high drama alternate with scenes of tranquility and dreamlike peace. As earlier, some of these chapters are written as if they were scenes from a play. Dialogues, soliloquies, and asides are used with increasing frequency, which reminds the reader that Ahab is concocting his own drama and that the quest for Moby Dick is as artificial as a play. The alternation of dreamy contemplation with dramatic tension reflects the reality of whaling: the excitement of the hunt is tempered by long periods of watching and waiting.
Read more about how the scenes in the narrative that resemble a play build dramatic tension.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!