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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 48: THE FIRST LOWERING

The five phantoms are the subject of much talk among the crew. Their appearance seems undeniably sinister-their leader wears a "glistening white" turban with his dark hair braided through it, and his followers resemble an island people said by some to be in league with the devil.

The boats are lowered. You'll notice how Melville moves from boat to boat contrasting the characters of each of the Pequod's mates. Stubb shouts angrily at his men, but the anger seems all in fun. Starbuck is serious and profit-minded. Flask stands recklessly up on the shoulders of his harpooner, Daggoo. But Ahab's boat remains a mystery.

All the boats are manned by skilled whalers. A non-whaler would not be able to tell a whale was swimming nearby, but these men can, from the troubled green water and the puffs of vapor that float in the air.

Melville's writing about the hunt is particularly powerful:

A short rushing sound leaped out of the boat; it was the darted iron of Queequeg. Then all in one welded commotion came an invisible push from astern, while forward the boat seemed striking on a ledge; the sail collapsed and exploded; a gush of scalding vapor shot up near by; something rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us. The whole crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the white curdling cream of the squall. Squall, whale, and harpoon had all blended together, and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped.

Thanks to Melville's vigorous prose, you probably feel like you're in the boat with Ishmael as the whale surfaces, a harpoon is thrown, the boat is swamped, and Ishmael jumps into the sea. It's hard to imagine any writer giving you a greater sense of the thrills and perils of whaling than Melville does in this scene.



CHAPTER 49: THE HYENA

As an inexperienced whaler, Ishmael has been frightened by the near sinking of his boat and the hours spent in the cold, dark ocean. After an experience like that, life itself seems a cruel and humorless practical joke. (The title of the chapter probably refers to the similarly humorless laugh of a hyena.) Ishmael is sufficiently afraid to make out a will (he's apparently had similar fears before-this is the fourth will he's made at sea). You'll notice that Queequeg is the beneficiary of Ishmael's will. It's another indication of their friendship. It also suggests that Ishmael is cut of from the rest of the world-that the Pequod is his home.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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