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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 79: THE PRAIRIE
CHAPTER 80: THE NUT

Ishmael studies the head of the whale hoping to figure out its secrets, something no physiognomist (one who studies character as revealed in the contours of the face) or phrenologist (a student of the bumps of the skull) has ever done. The sperm whale's nose is as great as Shakespeare's, his eyes as clear as mountain lakes; if you look at his face you'll sense God and Satan more strongly than if you look at any other object in nature. But in the end Ishmael decides the whale's head is like a series of Egyptian hieroglyphs, something he will never be able to understand.

NOTE: ISHMAEL'S EXAMINATION OF THE WHALE

Like Ahab a few chapters before, Ishmael is trying to decipher the meaning of the whale by looking at its head. But where the embittered Ahab automatically assumed the secrets seen by the whale to be dreadful, Ishmael's view is very different. To him the whale isn't just a symbol of evil, for some things about it are beautiful. Instead, it's an enigma, something that can't be understood. Ahab would like to command the whale to give up its secrets; Ishmael knows he can never do that.

CHAPTER 81: THE PEQUOD MEETS THE VIRGIN

The Pequod encounters the Jungfrau (German for virgin), a German whaler captained by one Derick De Deer and so incompetent at whaling that even its own whale-oil lamps are empty. De Deer has never heard of Moby-Dick, a further sign that he knows little of the sea. (Do you think the ship's name has any significance?)



Soon after the meeting, a group, or "pod," of whales is sighted, and the American and German ships both give chase. Swimming behind the rest of the group is an old bull whale. The German whaleboats are slow, enabling the Pequod's crew to reach the ancient creature first.

Once again you're shown the brutality of whaling. The hunted whale is old, sick, missing a fin, and blind. But he is shown no pity. Flask deliberately plants his harpoon in an ulcerated spot where he knows it will cause the beast the greatest pain. But Ishmael reminds us that we can't feel superior to the whalemen: this whale is being murdered so that we can light weddings and church services.

The whale's painful death benefits no one, for he begins to sink after being attached to the Pequod, threatening to capsize the ship. He must be cut loose.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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