Archive for the 'Whaling' Category

Mar 04 2010

Man vs. Nature

Published by under Environment, Nature,Whaling

What I found most interesting about the novel Moby Dick is the way in which it calls into question the power and the status of man. While humans tend to think that we are above all else, as we cultivate land, hunt sea-life, and take what we want when we want it. While I am unsure of the intentionality of the message, I believe the novel calls into question how powerful we really are.

Most notable we see this in the death of the Pequod’s crew. Ahab, after believing that he was more powerful then the whale, and thus, able to kill him, succeeds in getting not only himself, but his whole crew killed (with the exception of Ishmael), and even his ship destroyed.  It seems to send the message that when you underestimate, disrespect, and exploit the earth and its creatures, no good will come of it.

As we discussed earlier in the semester, this could be a larger message about man’s exploitation of the earth. If we continue to abuse the earth, just like Ahab in his quest for dominance over the whale, most likely we will end up killing ourselves before we succeed in killing the earth.

The novel also suggests the cyclical nature of the universe. Just as the Pequod chases whales, specifically, Moby Dick, the Pequod gets chased by the pirate ship in the Grand Armada.  This could serve to illustrate how ocean life, and life in general, is more cyclical and less hierarchical then we would like to think. Everyone who lives, will one day die. All powerful nations are eventually surpassed by the power of another. And perhaps one day man will be replaced in its supremacy by something else. There are larger forces at play, and when it comes down to it, no one is all powerful. Man, therefore, will not succeed in selfishly serving his own purposes, without consequences to himself.

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Mar 04 2010

Anthropomorphizing the Whale

Published by under Whaling

There are many occasions throughout the novel where Melville describes whales by giving them human characteristics.  Most noticeably is in the chapter Schools and Schoolmasters. First, he describes females whales by saying

“As ashore the ladies often cause the most terrible duels among their rival admirers; just so with the whales, who often come to deadly battle, and all for love.” (Melville, 380)

And later, compares whales to college students by saying

“Like a mob of young collegians, they are full of fight, fun, and wickedness, tumbling round the world at such a reckless, rollicking rate, that no prudent underwriter would insure them any more then he would a riotous lad at Yale or Harvard.” (Melville, 382)

In addition, throughout the chapter he refers to the whales in anthropomorphic terms such as describing the whales “embracing”, or as “gentleman.”

This is not a style seen uniquely in this chapter.  Later in The Dying Whale we again see the comparison of whales to humans when, while watching a dying whale turn his head towards to sun, Ahab comments on how the whale, like man, adores the sun’s warmth.  On page 477 he says:

“He turns and turns him to it,—how slowly, but how steadfastly, his homage-rendering and invoking brow, with his last dying motions. He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun!” (Melville, 477)

It is possible that in ascribing human characteristics to the whale he is attempting to hint at a bigger issue. In anthropomorphizing the whales, it makes hunting them seem more callous, exploitative, and even, perhaps, murderous.  In doing so, Melville could be attempting to critique the exploitation of the white man in other forms as well, such as slavery.  We have discussed in class a number of times that the issue of slavery was very relevant at the time that Moby Dick was written, and this would be Melville’s way of making an analogous statement about the issue.

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Mar 01 2010

What whaling has done to Ahab: The Leg, The Symphony and The Rachel

Published by under Whaling

I have talked several times about the delicate balance of madness and happiness found in whaling. As the novel draws to a close, I find that Melville gives more and more insight into this balance, and finally, right before Ahab’s death, puts the pieces together which, for me, truly explain Ahab’s madness.  Work with me, here: Ahab is out of touch with the forced, normal happiness of land, and has given himself over to the madness of the sea.  Although for most men, this would be a carefree and happy madness (according to Ishmael, anyway), because Ahab has forsaken his ties to land, he must totally rely on the idea of Self for happiness.  When Moby Dick attacks this Self and takes Ahab’s leg, Ahab is no longer whole, hence the aporia he experiences, and the vengeful chase that ensues.  Let’s look at the text.

As I have discussed in detail before, Ishmael talks about “settling” for domestic happiness:

I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country. (Melville 456)

Although Ishmael is quite taken with the sea, there is still a balance with land to be had, which I believe can most easily be seen in Starbuck: he obviously needs his release and finds it in whaling, but he does have a wife and child to return to.  Ishmael, himself, sees it rather the other way around: he will bear the land as long as possible, and when he needs to, he will return to the sea: “Whenver my hypos get such an upper hand of me… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as possible” (3).  Although Melville waits until the end of the novel, he finally reveals a large reason as to why Ahab is unstable: he has no ties to land:

Out of those forty years I have spent not three ashore… When I think of all this… how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare— fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow— wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!

He reveals, too, that his has a son that he has never seen.  Because of this, he admits that he is out of balance: that his soul has fed only on “dry nourishment”.  Because he has stopped trying to offset the wild madness of the sea with controlled happiness on land, he has lost his grip on humanity.  At this point, now, Melville has given all the pieces to Ahab’s madness, but we must go back in the book to put them all together.

The next step is to consider Ahab’s leg.  Taken from Moby Dick, the leg has already been listed as one of the founding reasons for the captain’s vengeful quest.  But why, one might ask, did this affect him so much? Melville reveals this in chapter 106, “Ahab’s Leg”. After suffering an accident,

[Ahab’s] ivory limb having been so violently displaced… it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured.  Nor, at the time, had it failed to enter his monomaniac mind, that all the anguish of that then present suffering was but the direct issue of a former woe; and he too plainly seemed to see, that as the most poisonous reptile of the marsh perpetuates his kind as inevitably as the sweetest songster of the grove; so, equally with every felicity, all miserable events do naturally beget their like.  Yea, more than equally, thought Ahab; since both the ancestry and posterity of Grief go further than the ancestry and posterity of Joy.

With every mishap, every occurrence that reminds Ahab of his false leg, his is also reminded of “a former woe”, in that all the feelings of emasculation that Ahab feel are directly connected to the original emasculation he suffered at the jaws of Moby Dick.  The loss of his leg, then, is a direct occurrence that has given Ahab his aporia, and keeps him from his happiness.  I feel that this is true because by forsaking his family on land, Ahab isolates himself (as he admits to Starbuck).  Because of this self-isolation, Ahab can only rely on himself for happiness.  Because, one might say, all of his eggs are in one basket, when Moby Dick crushes that basket by the removal of Ahab’s leg, the whale single handedly removes the link to happiness that Ahab finds within the idea of Self.  Although a man that still retained the saneness from land-living might be able to get past this, the wild madness that Ahab has permanently given himself over to is now forever tainted.  So now, hopefully, you see my point: Ahab, given all over to lonely madness, relies on self for happiness.  Because Moby Dick makes this impossible, Ahab goes on a vengeful quest to avenge his leg, and therefore makes Moby Dick into a malicious character that is directly barring him from contentment.

The extent of his vengeful madness is shown when the Pequod meets the Rachel.  As the Rachel’s captain calls for aid to find his missing son, Ahab says “Touch not a rope-yarn.  Captain Gardiner, I will not do it.  Even now I lose time” (579).  Ahab is so wrapped up in his pursuit of Moby Dick, that one might say his leg is, in a way, his own son, and he cannot give up searching for it.  Just as the loss of Captain Gardiner’s son keeps him from being whole, Ahab’s leg is the same for him: he has no connection to humanity, and thus all his love and happiness is intertwined in the self, which was destroyed by the whale.  So, while Ahab eternally mourns his loss of whole self, his the Rachel weeps for Ahab, lost eternally from humanity.

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Feb 25 2010

The ‘Spirit Spout’ through the lens of (slightly hyperbolic) realism

Ah, the Spirit Spout. The chapter that supposes the great whale is following the Peaquod. Rife with foreshadowing and ominous imagery, this chapter can also be read as a testimony to the serenity and solitude of the sea–and the tricks such solitude can play in the minds of men. Alone for an eternity without so much as a humpback to show for it, the crew of the Peaquod have become accustomed to an empty ocean; a monotonous, pristine blue-grey sheet that plods along til disappearing beneath the fog of the horizon. Once broken by a spout–real or imagined–the shattered serenity evokes nightmarish thoughts of monsters and fiendish leviathans. Indeed the sea has been for some time their peaceful feminine companion, but as becomes clear in “The Symphony,” it had begun to turn on them in their minds. No longer peaceful, serene, and feminine, the once calm sea now the portent of their impending downfall.

Sailors of a whaling vessel had little to go by in the way of guarantees. The industry of Melville’s era did not benefit from the technologies of today’s world. Fishing then was a crapshoot of epic proportions. For the men of Ahab’s craft, the prospects of a payday were ever-dwindling and the horror of their doom-bound journey was creeping ever steadily into their consciousness. These were men primed for a conjured sign–a affirmation of their terrible destiny. Form the standpoint of a psychologist, the Peaquod was a case study for the breeding grounds of group-effect driven hysteria. One man’s diluted vision yielded the panic (or beginnings thereof) of an entire crew.

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Feb 22 2010

Whaling and The Spirit Spout: Ahab’s hubris, revisited

As we reread and reflected on “The Spirit Spout” (Ch. 51) in class today, I approached it from a spiritual perspective, perhaps due to the name of the chapter.  What I found within, however, is a sort of summation of Captain Ahab’s hubris, how it spreads to the crew and yet another foreshadowing of the consequences, but this time in a more spiritual sense than solely a religious one (I believe that there is a difference, anyway). 

In the very start of the chapter, Ishmael makes a direct connection between the spout and a higher power: “Lit up by the moon, [the spout] looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea” (Melville 253).  Perhaps some extension or appendage of god or gods (a pagan reference?), the spout is representing the whale as something beyond man’s reach.  This idea is only deepened by the failed chases that continue into the chapter, giving an image of forever chasing something that will yield nothing if it doesn’t want to. 

Once the image of the spout as a celestial extension is produced, the spread of hubris around the ship is easy to see.  Despite the fact that all of these spouts occur at night, the men desperately and continually (at least for a time) chase after these mysterious occurrences in the dark.   Ahab’s personal harpooner, Fedallah, seems to be sort of responsible for the fervor that has risen among the men:

“‘There she blows!’ Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror; rather pleasure.  For though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.” (254)

With Fedallah prevoking the crew with his war cry, almost every man aboard would lower in the dark if they approached the creature that produced the spout, an action which Ahab would most certainly support if the spout proved to belong to Moby Dick, as he and the crew seem to believe: “It seemed… that unnearable spout was cast by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick” (254).  As we discussed in class, the crew seems very willing to give Moby Dick a malevolent intention which he does not naturally posess, believing that the whale was “treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the remotest and most savage seas” (255). 

By giving the whale this dark power, they are arming it with the very weapons needed for their downfall, an occurrence that is heavily foreshadowed.  As soon as the spout is first spotted, Ahab begins to roam the deck, and his very pacing was indicative of a death rattle: “While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.  On life and death this old man walked” (254).  Only Ishmael seems to be aware that now that the Captain has the crew on his side, their doom is almost certainly sealed.

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Feb 21 2010

The Dead Whale

Published by under Whaling

One does not often think that a creature still has the power to influence the living after it is already dead. What I have noticed a number of times throughout Moby Dick, is that there are a couple of occasions where creatures, usually the whale, can continue to influence the living after it is already dead. Set aside the fact that many parts of the whale are used by humans (oil, blubber, bones) after it had been killed, the dead whale still has the ability to instil fear in the living.  In the chapter The Funeral, Ishmael explains how once released back into the sea, the body of the whale still has an impact on those who sail the ocean, when he says:

“Desecrated as the body is, a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some timid man-of-war, or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the distance obscuring the swarming fouls, nevertheless still shows the white mass floating in the sun, and the white spray heaving high against it; straightway the whale’s unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log—shoals, rocks and breakers hereabouts: beware!” (Melville 300)

While this is a more perceived danger that instils fear in sailors, the dead whale can also pose a real danger to those that kill it. In the chapter The Shark Massacre we see that numerous sharks surround the whale attached to the ship and attempt to devour the carcass. In an attempt to protect the whale carcass, the crew pokes at the swarming sharks with spades. During this process, Ishmael remarks that “It was unsafe to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures.” (Melville 293) Right after he thinks this, Queequeg brings the corpse of a dead shark on board (to be used for its skin) and almost looses his hand on the shark’s sharp teeth. Like the whale, the shark has the power to hurt and to harm the living even after his death.

I find this power and influence over the living world even after death to be an interesting concept and one that seems to be possessed by the whale throughout the novel. As Ishmael says on page 300, “Thus while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to the world.” (Melville)

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Feb 17 2010

Madness and happiness found in whaling and the sea

Published by under Whaling

At the very start of Melville’s Moby Dick, we meet our narrator, Ishmael.  Before we can even escape the confines of the first paragraph, he immediately throws his sanity into question: “…whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.  This is my substitute for pistol and ball” (Melville 3).  In terms of narration, Ishmael has now made it quite difficult for the reader to trust his oncoming reports.  When he admits that this time around he wants to try a whaling voyage, that distrust deepens; why would the reader ever trust the perspective of a man with the desire to virtually enslave himself for 3-5 years?

But, as we soon see, this madness is all relative.  Perhaps, one might think, to be a whaler a man must contain some type of madness within himself, whether it be the madness of Ahab’s aporia, Starbuck’s superstition, Stubb and Flask’s self medication, or Pip’s susceptibility to the endless vaults of the sea.  After meeting these personalities, Ishmael’s manic-depressive manner seems to fit right in with the motley crew of the Pequod.

Ishmael’s madness is managed (or expressed, one might say) largely in his complete abandonment of the construct of “happiness” as seen on shore.  As Ishmael has his first shift at the masthead in open water, he reflects on how his happiness and his madness intertwine and how they manifest themselves in whaling as a solution: “The whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber” (172).  Ishmael sees the root of his madness in his philosophic mind; he loves the masthead because it gives his mind a temporary outlet, alleviating his melancholy… or perhaps heightening its control over him, so he can lose himself within it (which is arguably what happens to Pip when he falls overboard).  As we discussed in class, this makes him a bad sailor, but it is one of the reasons he is drawn to whaling.

Another time we see Ishmael reflecting on this is in his first interaction with spermaceti.  It is the first time that Ishmael really articulates (both for us and most likely for himself) his reasons for abandoning shore in his depression:

I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally.  (456)

Ishmael sees the construct of life on land as something barring men from their true happiness-society forces man to come to grips with what he lacks, and to form his new happiness around domestic life.  The manual work of bursting clods of spermaceti finally allows Ishmael to unlock his own true happiness, and we finally see why he rejects life on the land at his most depressed: escaping the confines of the earth allows him to unlock his true happiness, and at the same time and revel in his madness, rather than suppress it. 


Works Cited:

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Northwestern University Press, 1988. Reissued 2003. Print.

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Feb 16 2010


Published by under Whaling

Superstition is a concept that is seen in abundance throughout the novel. The men aboard the Pequod seem to be incredibly superstitious, and always very quick to believe the negative in a situation – perhaps in an attempt to protect oneself. Considering that whaling is a very dangerous endeavour, to believe the worst rumours, if it makes one more inclined to be careful, could potentially save one’s life.  As Ishmael says in the chapter Moby Dick, “fabulous rumors naturally grow out of the very body of all surprising terrible events.” (172)  That is to say that while some rumours may get wildly out of control, they are often based on some sort of truth to begin with.  Thus, if there is a reason to be afraid, it is better to believe the rumours and be careful, than it would be to ignore them and be careless in the face of certain danger. Again Ishmael articulates this by saying

“Not only are whalemen as a body unexempt from that ignorance and superstitiousness hereditary to all sailors; but of all sailors, they are by all odds the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face they not only eye its greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to them.” (Melville 172)

Because whalers are in direct contact with these dangers, superstition is an important form of defence.

I wonder, however, if this superstition and inclination to believe the worst, is in fact a kind of self fulfilling prophecy which causes these negative events to occur.  The first example of this is in the chapter Sunset where Ahab reveals to us that it had been foretold that he would be dismembered by a whale. This prophecy likely shaped the way his life has unfolded thus far, and led him to pursue Moby Dick as he has. This choice in lifestyle makes the prophecy much more likely and able to come true.  Had Ahab paid no attention to this prophecy, his obsession with killing Moby Dick would likely not be as great.

The power of the interpretation of events in a positive or negative light is seen again in the chapters Squid, and Stubb Kills a Whale.  After mistaking a squid for Moby Dick, the crew takes this as a bad omen, as Stubb says “The great live Squid, which, they say, few whale ships ever beheld, and returned to their posts to tell of it.” (Melville, 270) however, Queequeg sees the events in a different light, suggesting that the sight of a squid could in fact mean that a whale is nearby. As they continue their search, they do in fact find a whale, and manage to kill it. While it is possible that even without Queequeg’s positive outlook the crew would have found and killed their first whale regardless, I believe that the crew’s  inclination towards belief in the worst most likely only helps to cause the worst, and does nothing to seek a more positive outcome. while interpreting events in a more positive light, could help them to seek a more positive outcome.

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Feb 07 2010

The Merits of Whaling

Published by under Whaling

What strikes me as most interesting in the chapter The Advocate is the way in which Melville portrays whaling as a flawless and almost royal pursuit. He challenges every conceivable argument against the profession, and he does so in a very convincing way.  His most bold and interesting claim, in my opinion, is his defense of whaling against the argument that it simply a business of butchering, by comparing the profession of whaling with that of a soldier.  He claims that if it is in fact true the whaling is an uncleanly business, that does not mean that it cannot still be honorable, as is the profession of a soldier. To make this comparison he asks “what disordered slippery decks of a whale-ship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies’ plaudits?” (Melville 103).  He then goes even further than simply defending the business of whaling, to state that it is in fact more noble than going to war. This struck me as a kind of daring claim, but I’ll admit that the logic of his argument is somewhat convincing.

He argues that if it is the fear of war that earns the soldier his admiration, that what one faces on the battle field cannot compare to the terror of encountering a whale when he says:

And if the idea of peril so much enhances the popular conceit of the soldier’s profession; let me assure ye that many a veteran who has freely marched up to battery, would quickly recoil at the apparition of the Sperm Whale’s vast tail fanning into eddies the air over his head.  For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God! (Melville 103)

He goes on the argue that if it is the benefits derived from their services that earn soldiers their respect, then the benefits of whaling are just as great. Not only do we reap material benefits from a dead whale, including the highly valued oil it produces, but we have also discovered much of the world through the adventures of whaling ships. He speaks of Australia claiming that “The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony”(Melville 105).

Finally, at the end of the chapter, he states his claim that whaling is in fact more noble than going to battle by saying  “I know a man that, in his lifetime, has taken three hundred and fifty whales. I account that man more honorable than that great captain of antiquity who boasted of taking as many walled towns.” (Melville 106)

The reason that I find these seemingly outlandish arguments so compelling is that they are true. When you think about it logically, it is true that whaling and battle are similar in many ways.  The soldier goes out with intention to kill, not an adversary in the form of a whale, but other human beings. While Ishmael argues that this is less perilous and frightening, should killing a human not be more abhorrent then killing a whale? And yes, wars are fought for a purpose, usually to conquer land, so it could be argued that the soldiers are helping to expand, or defend, the land of their country.  However, Ishmael makes the argument that whaling ships have discovered new land for their country. It could be argued that the founding of these new colonies is just as beneficial. In these regards Ishmael’s arguments are compelling to me, however, I still don’t think that whaling seems to be equivalent to going to war, and I think that the important distinction lies in the intention of the soldier to defend his country, which is not a claim that whalers can make.  I was, however, struck by the power of Ishmael’s argument to almost convince me otherwise.

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Feb 06 2010

The science of whaling

Published by under Science or Cetology,Whaling

In the middle few hundred pages of Moby Dick, we finally get to experience catching and cutting up the Pequod’s first whale.  Ishamael takes a lot of time explaining to the reader exactly what must happen to properly complete this task.  Some parts of this appear very scientific, while others are open to variation.  Throughout the entire process, there is the danger of deadly accident.  While Ishmael seems to want to relate the science of catching and harvesting a sperm whale properly, he also lets the reader in on instances when the science fails and mistakes happen.

Ishmael himself sees a way to improve the way a whale is harpooned when he suggests that the boatheader and the harpooner do not switch places in the boat:

Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary.  The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing what whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman (280).

Ishmael has come to this conclusion through his experience with whaling and shows that the discipline can still be improved.

Other aspects, however, are very exact.  Ishmael describes the precision needed to behead the sperm whale.  He says that it is “a scientific anatomical feat, upon which experienced surgeons very much pride themselves, and not without reason” (300-301).  Other parts of cutting up and separating the various parts of the whale have very strict procedures, and yet Ishamael will still tell us when the Pequod does something slightly different, as when the monkey rope attached to Queequeg is attached directly to him as well.

Great risk is always present even when everyone is following all the rules.  Tashtego very unexpectedly falls into the whale while removing sperm and causes the head to fall into the water.  These events contrasted with the scientific mood Melville seems to be striving for in the surrounding chapters when he describes the physical aspects of the sperm and right whales.  Whaling therefore appears much more up to chance.  Sharks may come and eat the entire whale while it is tied to the boat over night, or they may not.  Queequeg may get hit with a dart meant for a shark while he sits on the whale’s back, or he may not.  I think that both the specific steps involved in whaling and the constant danger of the unexpected contribute to why Ishmael, and therefore Melville, are so obsessed with the activity.  Both the steps and the dangers are portrayed prominently in these chapters.

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