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Ishmael considers well-known graphic depictions of whales. To a whaleman who has actually seen whales, most historical, mythological, and scientific sources are blatantly inaccurate. As a result, says Ishmael, “you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.” The only solution that Ishmael sees for one who seeks to know what a whale looks like is an actual encounter with the creature. In the ocean, only portions of a whale are visible at any one time, the majority of the animal being underwater. Only dead whales are visible in their near-entirety, and those are to the living animal what a wrecked ship is to one afloat. He warns the reader not to “be too fastidious in your curiosity” about the whale, since such curiosity is unlikely to be satisfied.
Ishmael then tries to find some acceptable depictions of whales. To his mind, the only pictures that come close are two large French engravings that show the sperm and right whales in action. He wonders why the French have been best able to capture whales and whaling in art, because France is not a whaling nation.
Ishmael considers versions of whales crafted by whalers, including specimens carved in ivory, wood, and metal. Those with an interest in the creature can see whales everywhere, including in geological forms and in the starry sky.
Brit is a minute yellow substance upon which the right whale feeds. Ishmael moves from a discussion of feeding whales to a generalized comparison between the land and the sea. In the sea, there are hidden horrors and continuous danger, while on land, all is visible and therefore manageable. He applies this assessment to the human soul, which he believes contains a small island of “peace and joy” surrounded by an ocean of horrors.
As the Pequod sails toward Java, Daggoo thinks that he sights Moby Dick. The boats are lowered and the animal pursued. It is a false alarm, however, as it is only a giant squid, which is taken as a bad omen. Ishmael notes that the squid is conjectured to be the sperm whale’s food, but that the sperm whale feeds and lives largely out of sight beneath the sea’s surface.
In preparation for a later scene, says Ishmael, he will describe the whale-line. Made of hemp, this rope is connected to the harpoon at one end and dangles free at the other so that it can be tied to other boats’ lines. Because it is laid out throughout the boat and whizzes out when a whale is darted, it is dangerous for the men of the harpoon crews. All men, according to Ishmael, live with metaphorical whale-lines around their necks, and it is only when a catastrophe occurs that they realize the constant perils of life.
Queequeg views the squid as a good omen, indicating the presence of a sperm whale nearby. The crew soon sights a spouting sperm whale, which Stubb and Tashtego succeed in killing.
Ishmael gives a quick account of the harpooning of a whale. He argues that the system presently in use is inefficient, as the harpooner is forced to row strenuously before harpooning the whale and is thus breathing too hard to aim properly.
The crotch is a wooden support for a harpoon. Ishmael quickly digresses from describing the crotch to consider the loose harpoons that pose a threat to the boats. Each line has two harpoons attached to it. Ideally, both would be thrown and stuck into the whale. More commonly, however, the whale dives after the first strike and the second harpoon must be thrown overboard to prevent injury to those in the boat. Dangling loose in the water, the second harpoon still poses a great danger to the boats.
Most whalemen do not enjoy whale meat; Stubb, however, wants to dine on a steak from his whale. While he devours his steak, sharks dine on the carcass of the whale, which has been tied fast to the ship. Stubb calls on the black cook, Fleece, to make his supper; he also demands that the cook order the sharks to stop eating the whale flesh. The cook delivers a sermon to the sharks, telling them that they ought to be more civilized. Stubb then proceeds to torment the cook, who likens Stubb to a shark.
Ishmael offers a culinary history of the whale. He remarks that no one except for Stubb and the Eskimos still eat it. Deterrents include the exceedingly rich quality of the meat and its prodigious quantities. Furthermore, it seems wrong to eat whale because, though hunting the whale makes the meat a “noble dish,” one has to eat the meat by the light of a lamp that burns the whale’s oil. But, Ishmael ponders, perhaps this adding of insult to injury isn’t so rare: his readers probably eat beef with a knife made from the bone of oxen and pick their teeth after eating goose with a goose feather.
The chapters that survey visual depictions of whales demonstrate the cultural ubiquity of whales while simultaneously questioning the accuracy of pictures, and perhaps all representations, in general. Ishmael questions whether it is possible to create an object that conveys the reality and the spirit of the whale and its hunters. In doing so, he may implicitly suggest that his own picture of the whale—his narrative—will be inadequate. Alternatively, he may mean to imply the superiority of a picture in words to a graphic representation. The few engravings and paintings that Ishmael praises seem to be effective because they offer dramatic but not necessarily realistic scenes and convey some of the terror involved in a close encounter with a whale, which can also be said of Ishmael’s narrative.
The sea, which offers only its surface for interpretation while hiding unknown events in its depths, is a perfect model of human perception. As Ishmael notes in Chapter 58 with his metaphor for the human soul, even when we examine ourselves, we see only surfaces and quick glimpses of hidden truths. Ishmael finds this limitation to human perception strangely liberating. Unaware of what lies beneath these surfaces, he is free to interpret the world as he sees fit. His narration in these chapters tends to begin with a discussion of something concrete like brit or the giant squid before veering into philosophical speculation about concepts like the human soul and the mysteries of the ocean.
Read more about the motif of surfaces and depths.
Ishmael also offers the first of many digressions about whaling equipment and technique in these chapters. After describing the successful hunt of a whale, Ishmael goes back to talk about the crotch where a whale dart rests. His explanations about equipment and history give the novel a realistic and precise feel. This use of detail acts as a bulwark against the perceptual and philosophical uncertainty that threatens Ishmael’s narrative. As a result, the novel at times reads more like a documentary than a work of fiction.
These chapters also include comic relief, in the person of the cook Fleece (whose name likely reflects the nineteenth-century American description of black people’s hair as “woolly”). The cook’s sermon to the sharks contrasts with Father Mapple’s sermon in Chapter 9. Whereas Mapple delivers a lofty theological sermon full of metaphor and high ideals, Fleece addresses the sharks as “fellow-critters” and makes a series of startling points about equality, social justice, and the importance of distributing resources equally. Though it is supposed to be funny, his sermon resonates with Ishmael’s mention of sharks following slave ships for a taste of their human cargo and with Stubb’s mistreatment of the black Fleece. Fleece instances the undercurrent of racism and abuse within the supposedly meritocratic order aboard the Pequod.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!