Even kings and queens rely on whale oil for their coronations. Commentary This is the first of more than forty chapters in which Ishmael halts the flow of the narrative to discuss some aspect of cetology the study of whales , the whaling business, or the whales reputation. Modern read- ers might well wonder why he does this. First, Ishmael tells us early on that he is going to sea to learn more of whales and whaling.
He hopes to establish this as a worthwhile topic; that is why he refers to biblical sources such as the Book of Job or the Book of Jonah, here and throughout the novel, which add to the whales reputation. Further enhancing the status of whales, he alludes to Alfred the Great A. D, king of Wessex who ended the Danish conquests in Eng- land; promoted English culture; and, Ishmael argues, wrote about whales. In addition, Melville grounds his story in reality by his sections on cetology. He wants to create at least the illusion of fact in the novel, and he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that these events could occur.
Finally, the reader should notice that the narrator is having a good time. For the most part, these chapters on cetology are not dull, dry, tedious accounts. The tone is light-hearted and sometimes even silly. In the chapter Postscript, Ishmael argues that the whaling industry provides royalty with coronation stuff because the oil used to anoint a new king or queen probably is whale oil: Think of that, ye loyal Britons! Ishmael argues like a formal debater or a lawyer speaking to a jury, but his goal is to entertain as well as to inform.
We might remember that Melvilles audience in the s consisted of more patient readers; they almost certainly had longer attention spans than we have today. A good book might last the winter, and Ishmaels wit would provide a wel- comed break. Glossary superfluous excessive, more than is needed. Summary Ishmael introduces some of the crew, beginning, in descending order under Ahab, with those in command. Chief mate is Starbuck, a thirty- year-old Quaker whose father and brother were killed in whaling acci- dents.
Second mate is Stubb, [g]ood-humored, easy, and careless, rarely seen awake without a pipe in his mouth. Third mate is Flask short, stumpy, and pugnacious. Each will command an open boat when in pursuit of whales and have his own harpooner. The rest of the crew is a widely varied mix representing many parts of the world. Commentary One of Melvilles consistent literary devices is the use of contrast.
Here he employs it to distinguish character. The first mate is a devout Quaker, no hypocrite like the Pequods co-owner Bildad. He is calm, prudent, steady, and courageous, but he tempers his courage with a healthy respect for danger and an allowance for fear. As the novel pro- gresses, Starbuck will contrast strikingly with Ahab, who is volatile, obsessed, wildly mad at times, and irreverent.
Having first choice of harpooners, Starbuck takes Queequeg. In a different light, Stubb and Flask also contrast with Starbuck and each other. Second mate Stubb is carefree, even careless. He loves a good joke and can be insensitive or deceitful, but he is a reliable seaman and whaler. Tashtego, an American Indian, will be his harpooner.
Third mate Flask is stumpy and unattractive while Starbuck is tall and hand- some ; more importantly, Flask lacks Starbucks intelligence and eleva- tion of character. The third mate is an adequate seaman but possesses none of Stubbs imagination or humor.
Flask thinks whales are his per- sonal enemies, contrasting with Starbuck who simply sees them as a means to a livelihood, but anticipating Ahabs more complicated hatred of Moby Dick. All the harpooners are especially proud men, understandably so because of their prestigious positions aboard ship. Isolated as it is, and carrying a crew representing many parts of the globe, the Pequod serves as a microcosm of our planet. Ishmael observes that many of the crew are ignorant or even evil men, but he recognizes that each also has the capacity for exceptional valor, dignity, or demo- cratic nobility.
Most are not stereotypes; their virtues contrast with their vices just as they do in real people in the real world. Glossary squire an attendant, especially to a medieval knight; here a reference to a harpooner. Critical Commentaries: Chapter 28 Summary After the Pequod has been at sea for several days, Ahab finally makes his first appearance. Ishmael tries to convince himself that Ahab has simply waited until the ship, sailing south, reached warmer climes. He describes the captain in emblematic ways. From that morning on, more is seen of Ahab. Commentary Suspense is an effective literary device that Melville employs to develop an atmosphere of uncertainty or anticipation in the novel.
The mystery surrounding Ahab and the voyage of the Pequod increases daily with Ahabs absence.
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Elijahs diabolical comments haunt Ishmael as he wonders about the captain and visually checks the rear of the ship, where the officer is quartered, whenever Ishmael is on duty. He tries to rationalize that Ahab is just waiting for warmer weather before he comes out of his cabin, but the captains absence increases the narra- tors sense of ominous concern. When Ishmael finally does see Ahab standing on his quarter-deck one morning, foreboding shivers run over the crewman.
He describes Ahab in emblematic terms that add to the mystery of the man. The language is especially effective here. The first we learn of the captains appearance is that he does not seem to be ill but looks like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.
Next we are told that Ahab looks like a sculpture of solid bronze; he is compared to an oak or some other sort of great tree. The captain has a prominent scar, lividly whitish, running from the top of his head down his face and neck until it disappears beneath his clothing. There is a grim look on the captains face, an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable willfulness in his visage.
This is all so overpowering that it takes Ishmael a few seconds to notice the lega barbaric, white, ivory prosthesis fashioned from the pol- ished bone of the sperm whales jaw. The lower tip of the artificial leg is anchored in a hole in the quarter-deck, apparently bored for that purpose. There is another such hole on the other side of the ship. The description indicates a man larger than life; touched by heavens bolt, for good or evil; and partly carved from a sperm whales jaw.
Glossary peremptory final, absolute, decisive. Cellini Benvenuto Cellini , Italian sculptor also known for his autobiography. Summary Ahab spends less and less time in his cabin. It feels like going down into ones tomb, he is heard to mutter. His nightly pacing on deck, his whale-jaw leg thumping, disturbs some of the crew below. When Stubb humorously asks the captain if the noise might be muffled, Ahab calls the second mate a dog and ten times a donkey, dismissing him.
Ahab finds no comfort in a smoke and hurls his lighted pipe into the sea. Stubb has a disturbing dream. Commentary These chapters cast further illumination on the character of Ahab. As the Pequod sails farther south and nears the area where whales might be found, its captain grows increasingly restless. His habit of walking the deck at night is particularly disturbing to some of the crew who are trying to sleep below. Stubbs cautious, good-natured attempt to have the captain somehow muffle the constant thumping of his artificial leg is met with hostility from Ahab.
Aboard a whaler in the mid-nineteenth century, Ishmael points out, the captain is king. We see further into Ahabs troubled soul after Stubb is dismissed. Lighting his pipe by the binnacle lamp, the captain sits for an apparent moment of serenity; his mind, however, takes no pleasure in peaceful contemplation. It is driven toward a single goal.
He casts the pipe into the waters as brusquely as he dismissed Stubb and resumes his pacing on the planks. We also learn more of Stubb. In addition to the biblical Ten Com- mandments Exodus ; Deuteronomy , Stubb has an eleventh Think not and a twelfth Sleep when you can. But this night, sleep brings no respite to Stubb. He dreams that Ahab kicks him with the old mans ivory leg. Ahab suddenly turns into a pyramid; as Stubb kicks at that, a hunchbacked badger-haired old merman calls him to desist and says that its an honor to be kicked by a man as wise as Ahab.
Like most of the rest of the crew, Stubb is confused and troubled by his captains behavior; but he is also drawn to the monomaniacal commander, respects him, sees him as a great man, and will follow Ahab anywhere. Glossary aught to any degree. Queen Mab in folklore, a fairy queen who controls peoples dreams.
Summary In one of many considerations of cetology the study of whales , Ish- mael tells us of various types of leviathan, of which he values the sperm whale most highly. His attention then shifts to life aboard ship as he discusses the chain of command and some of the ways in which this hierarchy is demonstrated in daily life. The narrator considers the beau- ties and dangers of serving watch at the masthead.
Commentary Melville breaks the intensity of Ahabs introduction with these informative chapters in which Ishmael considers types of whales as well as life aboard ship. Ishmaels discussion of the hierarchy of whales demonstrates his pride in, and the importance he places on, whaling. He has deepest admira- tion for the sperm whale. It is, he says, the largest denizen of the globe and the most formidable to encounter, earning any experienced whalers respect.
More important to the whaling business, it is also the most valuable type of whale because it is the leading source of spermaceti, a white, wax-like substance taken from the oil in the head and used to make cosmetics, ointments, and candles. To Ishmael, the sperm whale is a noble creature, adding significance to the business of whaling but also to Ahabs quest, of which we are just beginning to be informed. A whaling vessel also has a kind of hierarchy, a chain of command that is essential to discipline and efficiency.
Its effect can be seen in the daily lives of the men aboard. The crew on a whaler is quartered at the front of the vessel; the captain, mates, and harpooners sleep at the back of the ship. Of special interest is the respect shown the harpooners. In the old days, two hundred years before our story, authority aboard Dutch whalers was divided between the regular naval captain and a Specksynderliterally, a Fat-Cutter, but in fact the chief harpooner who controlled the whale hunt.
While this office no longer exists in the industry of Ishmaels time, dominated by Ameri- cans, harpooners are quartered with the officers, eat at the captains table after the other officers have finished, and receive considerable respect. Whaling is dangerous for all aboard, especially those posted to watch for whales in the masthead, the highest point on the ship. While the view can be awe-inspiring on a beautiful day, merely climbing to the masthead is dangerous.
Nor is this perch on a southern whaler, such as the Pequod, a protected crows nest as one might find on a ship in northern waters. It is an open perch with bars for holding on but no protection. When rough weather hits, the hapless sailor on masthead watch must fend for himself. Glossary penem. The narrator quotes this scholarly defini- tion of a mammal for the purpose of ironic humor.
He thinks a whale is a fish either way. Critical Commentaries: Chapter 36 Summary A few days after the incident with his pipe, Ahab spends a restless day in his cabin or pacing the quarter-deck. Near the end of the day, he issues an unusual order: The entire crew, even the masthead watch, is to assemble before him. Ahab briefly discusses procedure for announc- ing the sighting of a whale and offers a Spanish ounce of gold to the first man to spot the White Whale. He enlists the crews support in a mission to kill Moby Dick; only Starbuck objects. Ahab and the crew celebrate. Commentary In one of the most significant chapters in the novel, Melville employs a dramatic techniquecomplete with brief stage directions, dialogue, and rousing speech, as well as narrative intervention.
This is one of sev- eral dramatized chapters in the novel. The method is especially effec- tive here because it allows the reader to see how charismatic and forceful Ahab can be as a leader and speaker. As the day wears on, it is clear to Stubb that something important is stirring in Ahab. The second mate tells Flask that the chick thats in him [Ahab] pecks the shell.
This is the time that Ahab chooses to announce his true intentions to the crew and attempt to persuade the men to join him in a singular effort to hunt down the White Whale. Like a speaker at a political rally, Ahab first unifies the group by ask- ing a series of emotionally charged questions that call for unified responses: What do you do when you spot a whale? What do you do next? What tune do you pull to in pursuit? The men are increasingly excited, almost as if they are in the blood lust of a real hunt. Ahab then employs his prop, a Spanish gold ounce, offered to the man who first sees raises the White Whale.
He dramatically holds up the coin to the declining sun and nails it to the mainmast. The harpooners are the first to recognize the whales description the white head, wrinkled brow, crooked jaw, three holes in the starboard flukeas that of Moby Dick. Their enthusiastic confirmations, and the revelation that Moby Dick took off the captains leg, lead Ahab into an emotional appeal to the crew to join him in chasing the whale over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. The men shout their enthusiastic approval.
The only abstention is from Starbuck who wants to stick to the business of accumulating whale oil and thinks it blasphemous to seek revenge on a dumb brutethat simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Ahab responds that he would strike the sun if it insulted me. This scene clarifies the primary difference between Starbuck and Ahab: Starbuck attributes no meaning to how and why things happen; Ahab interprets meaning in everything.
Scholars dispute whether Ahab considers Moby Dick to be a rep- resentative of evil or whether the captains vanity is so great that he wants to take on the structure of nature, even God himself. Is the whale evil, or is the evil in Ahab? The captain seems half-mad as he rants about attacking the inscrutable thing behind the mask, the force behind the faade that is the whale.
To understand Ahabs obsession, we must try to understand what he really wants to kill. Is it the whale or a power he sees behind the whale? These are questions to consider as the novel progresses. A convincing argument can be made that Ahab wants to be God and is offended that he should have to bear the insult of any authority beyond himself. The inscrutable thing dares to limit Ahabs role in the world. Ahab thinks that he is filled with a superhu- man power, an interior electricity that would kill mere mortals.
As he offers wine to the three harpooners, ceremonially celebrating a com- mitment to a unified cause, the scene has the impact of a diabolical black mass. Ahab is a powerful man, charismatic, obsessed, even mad, and he has all but one of the crew under his control. Glossary perdition damnation, Hell. Summary As evening turns into night, various characters react to the events of the day.
At sunset, Ahab, in his cabin, is pleased with the ease with which he swayed the crew and is outspoken in his determination. At dusk by the mainmast, Starbuck feels incapable of changing his cap- tains plan and is resigned to his role. At the nights first watch 8 p. At midnight, in the forecastle some of the crew and harpooners are still partying and drinking wine.
Commentary In these chapters, Melville continues to present dramatic scenes, using brief stage directions, soliloquy, and dialogue. There is no narra- tion from Ishmael. In addition to progressing the plot, Melville is able to offer the reader character insights through the thoughts and speech of Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, and assorted crewmen. Through his cabin windows at the back of the ship, Ahab can see the white and turbid wake of the ships passing and thinks of it as his own momentous impress on the world. His vanity includes an appar- ent pride in being what he calls demoniac; as he says, he is madness maddened!
He mocks the gods and is determined to be both the prophet of his revenge and its executioner. Starbucks response contrasts with most of the crews in a revealing way. The first mate recognizes that he is no match for his captain and is resigned to Ahabs Heaven-insulting purpose; yet he fears the omi- nous future. Stubb typically tries to laugh at the predestinated situation and sings a drinking song. An excep- tion is young Pip, the cabin servant who finds terror where the rest see cause for jollies. We will learn more about his insights in Chapter Glossary turbid thick, dense, and dark.
The ringing of a bell marks each half hour of the watch. Summary Ishmael returns as narrator to tell us what he has heard of the White Whale. Because his information is all hearsaysomething he has heard from others but cannot yet provehe concedes that much of it may be exaggerated. In fact, Moby Dick has already become a sort of legendary figure, reputedly omnipresent he supposedly appears at different places at the same time and perhaps immortal and eternal, which Ishmael explains as being omnipresent in time.
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We learn more details of Ahabs loss of leg, and Ishmael considers the meaning of whiteness. Commentary Having presented Ahabs proposal and the crews reaction in dra- matic form, Melville returns the telling of the story to Ishmael. The nar- rator admits that he, like most of the crew, was overpowered by Ahabs charismatic appeal, although Ishmael anticipates the rest of the voyage with dread in his soul.
We already know a fair amount about the White Whale, which we might think of as a key character in the novel. In these two chapters, Ishmael expands on its physical description and considers reports that range from likely to fanciful. From Ahab and the harpooners Chap- ter 36 , and now from Ishmael, we learn that Moby Dick is an excep- tionally large sperm whale with a snow-white head, a wrinkled brow, a crooked jaw, an especially bushy spout, and three holes in the right fluke of his tail.
His hump is also white and shaped like a pyramid. The rest of his body is marbled with white. He fantails oddly before he submerges. One of Moby Dicks favorite tricks is to seem to be flee- ing but suddenly turn on his pursuers and destroy their open boats. Sailors attribute great intelligence and malignity to the White Whale. What is the White Whale to Ahab? Ishmael thinks that Ahab views the whale as an embodiment of all evil. It may be helpful to consider Ahabs comments in Chapter The irrepressible captain there sees Moby Dick as a mask, behind which lies a great power whose dom- inance Ahab refuses to accept.
Ahab himself says Chapter 41 that his means are sane but his motive and object are mad. However, Ahab may not be the best judge. We are told that he was attacking the White Whale with only a six-inch blade, like an Arkansas duellist, the day that Moby Dicks lower teeth sliced away the captains leg as a mower would a blade of grass. That method of attacking the whale seems insane, driven by the captains excessive determination. Many scholars, including most notably Harold Bloom in Moby- Dick: Modern Critical Interpretations consider Chapter 42, The White- ness of the Whale, to be the visionary center of the novel and perhaps of all of Melvilles writing.
Students might note the rich ambiguity of Ishmaels inquiry into the significance of the whales visible absence of color. In that whiteness, Ishmael sees innocence and evil, glory and damnation in a nine-page chapter that is one of the most rewarding in the novel. We are not spoon-fed meaning by Melville. As with most great writers, he allows the reader to form his own conclusions. Ahab appears to be a great man but a madman; but what is Moby Dick? Glossary malignity intense ill will, a quality of being harmful or dangerous.
Summary One quiet night while working near the rear of the ship, one of the seamen hears a mysterious sound, perhaps a human cough, beneath the hatches of a part of the ship where the crew never is allowed. The source of the sound remains unidentified. Meanwhile, Ahab spends his evenings poring over charts of the worlds oceans, searching for patterns in the movement of whales. Ishmael feels it is time to swear certain facts to the reader so that we might believe the story that he is telling us. Commentary Some of the mystery of the voyage is still unexplained.
What were those shapes that Ishmael thought he saw entering the boat on Christ- mas morning? Are they related to the strange sounds heard below the hatches near the captains quarters? Ahab may know, but he is not talk- ing. The captain spends most evenings trying to guess where Moby Dick might be. Ishmael assures us that whales do migrate in certain patterns, but the sperm whales routes vary more than most, and its a big world.
In Chapter 45, Ishmael attempts to convince the reader that the story he tells is consistent with possibility. As if he were swearing an oath, Ishmael reveals that Ahab is justified in believing that his own harpoons still ride Moby Dick and that he may well be the one to kill the White Whale; such odd things have happened. Nor is it unique that Moby Dick is recognizable; so are several other sperm whales, some given names. Foreshadowing events later in the novel, Ishmael warns that hunting whales in an open boat is very dangerous and that sperm whales have even been known to attack and sink large ships.
Ishmael is concerned that, without these plain facts, historical and otherwise, the reader might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable or, worse, an allegory. He asks us to suspend our disbelief, we must suspect, because this is a grand, mythic journey with so many tempting, hidden meanings. Ishmael asks us to stick to the story. Glossary scuttle-butt a container for drinking-water aboard ship; information passed at such a place.
Summary Ishmael speculates on Ahabs motivation for continuing to look for whales other than Moby Dick. As Queequeg and Ishmael work on a mat to lash to the boat, Tashtego spots a school of sperm whales and sounds the alarm, There she blows! Almost immediately, the men spring into action and begin lowering boats. Suddenly, five dusky phan- toms surround Ahab. Ishmaels boat is swamped in the ensuing whale chase, but all aboard escape with their lives.
Commentary Ishmael offers further insight into the captains character as he sur- mises that Ahab may continue to seek other whales because it is in his fiery whalemans nature or because he resents all whales. More likely, he suggests, Ahab realizes that his men need short-term goals and are interested in pursuits that will fill their purses. They also need some practice. As a wise leader, he encourages the hunt.
Ahab is also a very private man who tells the crew only what he thinks it should know.
Moby-Dick and Melville’s Anti-Slavery Allegory
The mystery of the shadowy figures on Christmas morning and the sounds below deck are solved when five aboriginal natives of the Manillas suddenly surround the captain at the first lowering. A whal- ing captain usually stays aboard ship during the actual hunt; during this voyage, Ahab will join the chase with the aborigines as his crew.
Their leader is a white-turbaned old man named Fedallah, of whom we will hear more later. There is a continuing aura of secrecy and per- haps even evil about the aborigines. Ishmael points out that some white mariners believe that natives of the Manillas are paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord.
Ishmael has previously discussed the dangers of pursuing whales in an open boat; here they are demonstrated. Chapter 48 is an exciting account of an unsuccessful whale chase, culminating in the loss of Star- bucks boat on which Ishmael is part of that days crew. Ishmael is amazed at the other mens light-hearted response to this near-death expe- rience. When he returns to the ship, he promptly draws his will.