Friday 31 January 2020

Moby-Dick Chapters 81 - 90

Three more of these posts, and I will have caught up to my reading schedule! I had really hoped to read an authoritative bio about Melville during this time, but I can see the days, weeks and months slipping by...and here we are, suddenly, on the brink of February, with only 17 chapters to go.

Ch 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin
  • Hmmmm, more religious symbolism to unpack here, Herman?
    • Back in chapter 78, Tashtego was reborn through the whale's head - a kind of virgin birth - and now we have a virgin ship. A ship with no oil and a ship full of inexperienced sailors.
  • The crew of the Jungfrau from Bremen, are shown to be naive about the rules of the sea and to be no match for the seasoned men of the Pequod when it comes time to chase down a pod of whales.
  • The death of this whale is a long and drawn out process, with success finally going to the crew of the Pequod.
    • 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.
  • What seems like good luck though, turns bad, when the whale starts to sink, rather than float. It eventually snaps the chains they had been using to hold it and disappears beneath the surface.
  • Meanwhile, those foolish young men from the Jungfrau head off to chase down another pod of whales, mistaking a pod of Fin-Back's for Sperm Whales - losers!
    • Ishmael enjoys mocking those more inexperienced than him a little too much sometimes.

Ch 82: The Honor and Glory of Whaling
  • Whalers as heroes once again. This time a mythological lens.
    • Perseus, St George, Hercules, Jonah and Vishnoo.
    • Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St George, a Coffin [a Nantuckateer], have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale.

Ch 83: Jonah Historically Regarded
  • Melville treats the story of Jonah as fact, just like the 'orthodox pagans' of ancient Greece and Rome accepted the stories about Hercules and Arion as fact.
  • Ishmael attempts to view the story of Jonah through a modern, scientific lens.
    • Knowledge or truth can be viewed in different ways (lens). It can also be seen differently from the viewpoint of different eras.
    • Melville's ability to switch perspectives is quite impressive - Father Mapple gave us the religious point of view about Jonah and now we get the pragmatic view.

Ch 84: Pitchpoling
  • Yet another way to kill a whale - javelin style, or pitchpoling - a skill that Stubb has refined.

Ch 85: The Fountain
  • Finally, we get to the most recognisable feature of a whale - his spout.
  • Like much of our knowledge about the whale, there is uncertainty and speculation. No-one knows for sure, people believe lots of different things and declare that their's is the correct way of thinking about whale spouts. Ishmael urges us to keep an open mind.
    • And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Ch 86: The Tail
  • Guess what this chapter is about?
  • Ishmael is obviously a tail man. He waxes lyrical about the beauty, grace and power of the whale's tail.
    • Excepting the sublime breach—somewhere else to be described—this peaking of the whale's flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature.
  • Yet, still, he laments how little he really knows about the whale.
    • Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.

Ch 87: The Grand Armada
  • Another pod of whales, much bigger than previous ones, and therefore, called a grand armada by Ishmael.
  • The Pequod is sailing off the Javanese coast. They suddenly find themselves being chased/hunted by a Malay pirate ship.
    • Ahab to-and-fro paced the deck; in his forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and in the after one the bloodthirsty pirates chasing him.
  • The chase has all the usual adventure heroics about it, until Ishmael reveals that the pod has a large number of mothers and calves.
    • The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us.
  • Ishmael is still full of the excitement of the chase, but now, this reader in particular, was rooting for the whales.

Ch 88: Schools and Schoolmasters
  • According to Ishmael, whales travel around in two types of pods or schools.
    • One features an older male whale and his harem.
    • The other, is a group of boisterous young bucks prone to violence.

Ch 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
  • Time for a lesson in law on the high-seas - who owns what fish?
  • A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
  • A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
  • Fair enough!
  • But it wouldn't be Melville if this simple piece of law didn't turn into a chance to philosophise about the state of man and animal.
    • What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish...? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow's last mite but a Fast-Fish...? What are the Duke of Dunder's hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? 
    • What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

Ch 90: Heads or Tails
  • De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam. Bracton, 1.3, C.3.
    • Concerning the whale, it really suffices that the king should have the head and the queen the tail.
  • Ishmael provides as with a rather farcical example of this Fast-Fish law in action.
  • It seems that perhaps, the law is an ass instead!

I'd love to hear from you and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.

Extracts - Chapter 7
Chapters 12 - 16
Chapters 17 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 34
Chapters 35 - 40
Chapters 41 - 44
Chapters 45 - 49
Chapters 50 - 60
Chapters 61 - 70
Chapters 71 - 80
Chapters 81 - 90


  1. This book is mesmerizing. So much packed in it.

    1. I agree whole-heartedly Silvia. This slow read has been wonderful on so many levels.


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