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CHAPTER 102: A BOWER IN THE ARSACIDES
So far, in describing the whale Ishmael has talked mostly about his exterior. Now he wants to discuss the interior-but how? Unlike Jonah, he has never been inside a living whale. He did, however, dissect a cub sperm whale once. And his knowledge of the skeleton comes from a visit to the (fictional) island of Tranquo, in the Arsacides. There a great sperm whale was beached and its bones turned into a temple for the island religion.
NOTE: IMAGERY OF THE WHALE'S SKELETON
As Ishmael describes the skeleton, you can see connections with other parts of the book. As in the chapter the Mat-Maker, life is compared to a carpet woven on a great loom by an unseen hand-God, or perhaps fate. The noise of the loom is so loud that God can't hear man's voice, and man can't hear God's: another example of man's inability to influence the universe, and of his inability to understand it. Only when man escapes the loom-that is, only when he escapes life to meet death-will he hear.
You'll notice, too, that as Ishmael continues to study the skeleton, a trick of sunlight makes the whale himself seem the weaver-another image linking the whale to God.
Out of scientific curiosity, Ishmael tries to measure the skeleton, but the village priests prevent him. We see Melville's cynical view of organized religion as the priests then begin to fight among themselves.
CHAPTER 103: MEASUREMENT OF THE WHALE'S SKELETON
According to Ishmael's calculations, a large sperm whale might weigh ninety tons, greater than the combined weight of 1000 people. The skeleton he saw on Tranquo measured 72 feet, but in life the whale is larger. We're reminded of the dangers of trying to understand the meaning of life: you'll never know the whale by timidly looking at its skeleton, Ishmael says, only by throwing yourself dangerously near its angry flukes.
As he discusses whale fossils, Ishmael half-jokingly, half-seriously reminds us that his subject is an epic one. To do it full justice he would need a pen made from a condor quill and a volcano's crater as his inkstand. Looking at fossil whales convinces Ishmael that whales appeared on earth long before mankind, and as he looks to their future he will predict their numbers will never diminish. They are like all great forces of nature, immortal.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version