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.
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.