Thursday, January 26, 2012

Moby Dick Readalong: Chapters 56-93

Jan 26: Chapters 56-93
Feb 2: Chapter 94-epilogue

Here we are at the end of chapter 93! We're getting close to the end! Here's what happened in this section:
Ishmael tells us that he likes certain French engravings of whales and considers them quite decent. There are also depictions of whales made from other materials, such as teeth, wood, stones, and stars.

The Pequod is quite far out to sea by this time. The sea is wide and terrible, and Ishmael claims that "man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it." The relationship of the sea to the land is analogy to something within the self, Ishmael says, "For as this appalling ocean surounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!" (Spooky.)

Oh! The great white whale is spotted in the distance! The boats are lowered, the men go after him - however, they turn back when they see a huge squid which is very bad luck. Bummer.

Ishmael describes how ropes are used on the ship. Stubb kills a sperm whale. The process of harpooning a whale is exhausting, we're told. (Reading about it can be a little exhausting too...)
Stubb eats a whale steak for dinner. Sharks gather around the freshly killed whale which is still in the water. Stubb reprimands the cook for not cooking his steak to his liking.

Ishmael discusses the whale as a dish, which parts are eaten, what they taste like, etc. Sharks continue to feed on the whale corpse in a frenzy. They seem to be possessed by devils.

The men cut the blubber from the whale using a large hook. Whales have a thick coat of blubber around their bodies to keep them warm, but around their very outside they have a thin, transparent, vulnerable skin. The big white blob of what's left of the whale is pulled alongside the ship, and Ishmael believes its ghost may be following as well. Ahab peers down the side of the ship at the head, wondering what mysteries of the sea it has seen.

The Pequod meets another ship called the Jeroboam. There is a crazy guy on this ship that says he's the angel Gabriel. There is an epidemic on this ship so they decide not to come over to the Pequod. The captain of the Jeroboam warns Ahab that the white whale is bad luck because it killed one of their men. Ahab just then realizes that he has a letter for a sailor on the Jeroboam. Oh crap, it's for the dead guy. This does not bode well.

Later, Queequeg goes into the water with the whale to cut it up. Ishmael is tied to Queequeg with a monkey rope to keep him steady. Stubb and Flask go out to kill a Right whale, because it is believed that a ship with a Sperm whale's head on one side and a Right whale's head on the other will never capsize. Ishmael describes what a Right whale's head looks like. Ishmael describes what a Sperm whale's head looks like. Also, the nature of a Sperm whale's head makes it possible for it to ram into ships. Remember this, Ishmael says. (Hmm.)

Digging for spermaceti via
The best oil in a Sperm whale is located in its head. To retrieve this oil, Tashtego goes on to the head, makes a hole in the top and lowers a bucket down with a rope. All of a sudden, Tashtego loses his balance and FALLS INTO THE WHALE. The head detaches from the hooks holding it to the ship and starts to sink. Queequeg jumps in the ocean and somehow retrieves Tashtego from inside the head.

Ishmael describes the Sperm whale's physiognomy (its face.) He then discusses its head, skull, and spine. He says that the smallness of the sperm whale's brain is compensated for by the strength of its spine.

The Pequod meets up with some German ships.  When a pack of whales shows up, the ships all compete to kill the old, slow one in the back. The whale is blind and dies pathetically, then slowly starts to sink. It is an "old, meagre, and broken hearted creature." :(

Ishmael cites myths about heroes killing whales. Whaling is a noble feat, and all whalers are heroes, he says. Then he talks about Jonah and the Whale and how the story could be regarded historically.

Stubb uses a pitchpole - a lighter weapon that can be thrown long distances - to kill yet another whale. Ishmael tells us how a whale breathes through the spout on its head. He also admires the grace and beauty of the Sperm whale's powerful tail.

Now another sad part. The Pequod arrives at a still, peaceful area where whale mothers nurse their young. They accidently tangle their ropes with the umbilical cord of a mother whale. Ishmael describes whale milk and blood mixing in the water.

Ishmael describes the two groups, or schools of whales that exist. One is a group of "ladies," as Ishmael calls them, escorted by one male. The other is a group of young restless males.

Ishmael discusses the laws about whaling. In England the whale must go to the sovereign - heads to the king, tails to the queen.

The Pequod meets up with the Rose-bud, a pretentious French whale ship (whose captain used to be a parfumier, haha) that is towing a stinky dead whale corpse they found floating on the water. Stuff convinces them that this dead whale is useless because its oil is all dried up. They gladly cut it free to get rid of the nasty smell. Stubb promptly goes after this whale to retrieve ambergris from its bowels. Ambergris is an incredibly valuable substance that comes from the intestines of sick, dead whales, and is used in the perfume business. Oh, the irony.

In the last chapter of this section, Pip, one of the ship-keepers on the Pequod, ends up overboard and is left behind. He is eventually picked up again, but is never the same afterward.


This section was much more enjoyable to me than the last section. I had heard horror stories about Melville's lengthy description of what is done with a whale once it is dead, but I was actually fascinated by those chapters. I thought it was so cool the way he described the blubber coming off in one curly piece like the rind on an orange. And I thoroughly enjoyed imagining a ship with two decapitated whale heads hanging from each side (though my mental image was much funnier than the picture I found shows).

Throughout this section, the question that kept coming to my mind was, what is Melville's purpose for writing this? What is he trying to accomplish with such a peculiar piece of writing? 

At one point in this section, after a particularly lengthy love song to the nobility of whales and whaling and everything to do with the subject, I began to suspect that Melville was really just a giant nerd trying to make something nerdy seem really cool and epic, kind of like my older brother tried to make MAGIC cards seem exciting and cool. And maybe Melville just happened to succeed, and the joke's on us for placing it in the literary canon.

It's interesting that Melville seems to be taking the same tactic with characterizing the White Whale that he did for Ahab earlier in the book. He makes both of them into kind of supernatural, mythological beings by introducing Ishmael and, in turn, the reader, to each of them first with strange stories. 

Before we met Ahab, we met Elijah, who talked about how strange Ahab was, and now, even though Ishmael has seen and interacted with him, he still remains a sort of phantom. We have now had several stories about Moby Dick and spotted him, but he, too, is ghost-like (and his color certainly helps that image). Plus, Melville seems to be foreshadowing the infamous whale's character as he describes its physiognomy (the peculiar shape of the head, the placement of the eyes so he sees nothing but everything, the strength of his backbone). It definitely makes me curious to meet the ole' whale.

Melville seems to be rather ambivalent about a lot of things -- we already talked about his vague beliefs toward religion. This section brought up a new one for me: whereas he usually glorifies and defends whaling, the way he describes the death of the old, blind whale is kind of heartbreaking. He says:

"So from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all."

Then, in the very next chapter, he calls whalers heroes, demigods, and prophets. What do you make of this? Can you figure out Melville's opinions about anything? Do you think he knows what he believes, or do you think he, too, is trying to figure that out? What other subjects does he seem to be ambivalent about? 

Also, here crops up Jonah again. Any further thoughts on the significance of this story to this novel, or to Melville?

Next week, we finish the book and wrap up our discussion! Woohoo!

Further resources on this section:

An NPR blog has some interesting thoughts on why Melville included the lengthy comparison of the Sperm Whale's head as opposed to the Right Whale's. Read that here.

As I read this selection, I found myself getting a little confused on the geography of where the Pequod has traveled, so I googled a Moby Dick map and found this one. If you, too, want to visually follow along with Ishmael and Ahab on their exploits, check it out.