Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Chapters 32 - 35
In the above chapters, Ishmael gives the reader factual information on cetology --the science of whales, as well as the history of sailors and mariners and the working conditions on board the whaling ships.
In Chapter 32, the narrator familiarizes the reader with the whale. He says that a whale is a giant spouting fish with a horizontal tail. Stating the various types of whales he begins to group them and gives information about them. Under the gigantic or large size whale group: there are six: the sperm whale, the right whale, the finback whale, the hump-backed whale, the rigor back whale and the sulfur bottom whale. Of all these whales, he says, the sperm whale is the largest and has the greatest commercial value because it contains the most valuable oil - spermaceti. Spermaceti is prepared from the fat lining the sperm whale’s body, below the skin.
The middle size group of whales are the grampus, the black fish, the thrasher and the killer. In this group, the grampus is extremely valuable for its oil. It is also familiar because of its habit of blowing a fountain of water into the air as it breathes. Finally, there is the group of small sized whales: the huzza porpoise, the algerine porpoise and the mealy-mouthed porpoise. According to the narrator, though he does not consider porpoises and dolphins to be whales, porpoises are classified as whales because of their pouting mouths and horizontal tails.
In the following chapters, Ishmael gives a brief history of sailing. He says that perhaps it is the Egyptians who were the first mariners. Then he goes on to tell the reader about life on a whaling ship on a southern whaling voyage. He says that at sea while the captain, the mates and the harpooner’s stay at the rear of the ship, the seamen stay on the other side of the ship. Normally, seamen are not allowed on the rear or ‘aft art’ of the ship without removing their shoes. And this part of the ship is a place, where the captain walks around to survey the ship. But, on the Pequod this is not the case. Though Ahab does not follow these rules, he certainly makes it clear that the officers i.e. the mates and their harpooners should be respected.
On the ship, the captain’s cabin is considered to be his private property, particularly so in Ahab’s case, as he spends a lot of time cut off from the rest of the crewmembers. However, at lunchtime, when Pip, the cabin boy calls out for lunch, he has to put up with the other mates in the cabin. Ishmael gives a rather amusing account of how the grim captain sits for meals with the mates at the table. The complete and awkward silence that prevails during this time is contrasted against the noise and clatter that reigns when the three harpooners go in for lunch.
In the following chapter, Ishmael gives some information about the masthead of a ship. According to him, on a whaling ship, the masthead is an open spot above the topsail of the ship. From here, the sailor is supposed to keep watch in turns, all 24 hours of the day (and night). His duty is to watch out for whales and call out as soon as one or more is spotted. On a whaling ship, the sailor watching cannot sit, but can only cling on to it and keep his eyes on the water below. During bad weather, he had just a coat to protect himself. While perched on the masthead, the sailor is about 100 feet above the decks. Ishmael says that in `serene’ weather, the view from this high perch is ‘delightful’ especially "to a dreamy meditative man".
In the above chapters, especially on the subject of cetology, the author reveals his ability to write about technically difficult subjects in a lucid manner. In fact, he even makes it extremely interesting for a layman who has no knowledge on the subject. From time to time Melville digresses about whales and the whaling industry, because he wants to state a connection between whales and the whaling industry and life itself. The author suggests that just as the topic of whaling is a substantial issue, the story about Pequod is also rooted in reality - the reality of the world one is living in.
Further, through the chapter on Cetology, the author makes a philosophical observation about how the world was created and how it should be perceived. The chapter ends with the narrator stating: "But I now leave my Cetological system standing thus unfinished ...For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the cope-stone to posterity...This whole book is but a draught - may, but the draught of a draught." Through these lines, the author seems to suggest that the higher and grand purpose of life cannot be understood completely by man nor did God create the world in a complete manner. Instead others must finish the task begun by God.
The tension and gloom that pervades the novel is due to the presence of Captain Ahab. This is seen in the chapter, "The Cabin-Table" in which dining is seen as a tortuous affair due to the captain’s inability to be the least bit humane.
In "the Mast-head" Melville resumes with his technique of making commentaries about life through the varying aspects of a whaling boat by commenting on how there are those in the mast- head who are forever looking for something that does not exist or who are lulled by the beauty and idyllic setting of the sea that they may never see the reality of a situation.