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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 70: THE SPHYNX

While the whale was being stripped of blubber, it was also beheaded-a difficult task as a whale lacks a neck to chop and the operation must be performed on a sea-tossed ship; little wonder Stubb takes pride in being able to behead a whale in ten minutes. Once removed, the head is hung off the side of the ship, heavy enough that the Pequod tilts with it.

Ahab goes up on deck, takes Stubb's spade and sticks it into the whale's head. To him the head resembles the Sphynx of Egypt, the enormous monument with a human head and a lion's body that symbolizes eternal mysteries. It knows the secrets of the universe; it has dived deeper than any other creature, seen sunken navies, drowned lovers, beheld sights that would cause even the biblical patriarch Abraham to lose his faith.

NOTE: AHAB AND THE SPHYNX

In his speech to the whale head, you see Ahab trying to break through the "pasteboard mask" to find true meaning. But notice how he assumes that the meaning behind the mask must necessarily be evil. He can imagine only that the whale has seen countless horrors.

A shout from the mast-head announces that another boat has been seen, and Ahab hopes it will cheer him with news of Moby-Dick.

CHAPTER 71: THE JEROBOAM'S STORY

The ship that approaches is the Jeroboam of Nantucket, but it won't let the Pequod "gam" with her. There is an epidemic on board, the first sign that this meeting will be an ominous one for Ahab.

The Jeroboam's Captain Mayhew and Ahab communicate by shouts, but soon they're interrupted by a small man in a strangely cut coat. Stubb immediately recognizes the man from a story about the Jeroboam the Town-Ho had earlier passed along. The man, an insane, self-styled prophet, managed to fool the Jeroboam into taking him on as a whaleman; once on board he announced that he was the archangel Gabriel bringing news of the Last Judgment and was terrifying enough that the crew began to believe him, all the more after the start of the epidemic.

"Think of thy whale-boat stoven and sunk," Gabriel says in answer to Ahab's question about Moby-Dick. And Captain Mayhew tells Ahab that the Jeroboam, too, had been hunting the great whale when its first mate, Macey, was killed.

Ahab remembers that the Pequod carries a letter to one of the Jeroboam's crew-a letter, it turns out, addressed to the late Harry Macey. Ahab throws the letter to Captain Mayhew, but magically it lands in Gabriel's hands. Gabriel tosses it back. Ahab should keep it, for he will soon be going Macey's way-that is, to a watery death.



NOTE: AHAB AND THE JEROBOAM

In every way the Jeroboam is a warning to Ahab. Its name, like Ahab's, is that of a wicked king of Israel mentioned in I Kings; the ship has been punished for disobedience by the death of its first mate. Gabriel is one of a series of prophets (like Elijah earlier, and Pip later in the novel) able to speak a mad truth about the dangers of Ahab's quest. To Gabriel, as to Ahab, the whale is a symbol of God's wrath. But where Gabriel madly flees the whale, Ahab, perhaps more madly, pursues it.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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