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American Literature books summary

Dick to his death!"

Another chapter beginning with a stage direction, Sunset is a melancholy

monologue by Ahab. He says that everyone thinks he is mad and he agrees

somewhat. He self- consciously calls himself "demoniac" and "madness

maddened." Even though he seems to be the one orchestrating events, he does

not feel in control: "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails,

whereon my soul is grooved to run." Dusk is Starbuck's monologue. Though he

feels that it will all come out badly, he feels inextricably bound to Ahab.

When he hears the revelry coming from the crew's forecastle, he laments the

whole, doomed voyage. First Night-Watch is Stubb's monologue, giving

another perspective on the voyage. Midnight, Forecastle is devoted to the

jolly men who take turns showing off and singing together. They get into a

fight when the Spanish Sailor makes fun of Daggoo. The onset of a storm,

however, stops their fighting and makes them tend to the ship.

Chapters 41-47


Ishmael is meditative again, starting with a discussion of the white

whale's history. Rumors about Moby Dick are often out of control, he says,

because whale fishermen "are by all odds the most directly brought into

contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face

they not only eye its greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to

them." It is easy to attach metaphorical meaning or make up legend about

dangerously intense, life-threatening experiences. Ishmael is skeptical,

though, about assertions that Moby Dick is immortal. He admits that there

is a singular whale called Moby Dick who is distinguished by his "peculiar

snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump" and that

this whale is known to have destroyed boats in a way that seems

"intelligent." No wonder Ahab hates the white whale, says Ishmael, since it

does seem that Moby Dick did it out of spite.

Intertwined with Moby Dick's history is Ahab's personal history. When the

white whale took off Ahab's leg, the whale became to Ahab "the monomaniac

incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating

in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung."

Ahab's reaction was to magnify the symbolism of the whale: the whale didn't

just take off his leg, but represents everything that he hates and

everything that torments him. Ahab went crazy on the trip home, says

Ishmael, though he tried to appear sane.

The Whiteness of the Whale turns from what Moby Dick means to Ahab, to what

it means to Ishmael. Above all, he says, it is the whiteness of the whale

that appalls him. (Note Ishmael's pun{the root of the word "appall"

literally means to turn white.) Ishmael begins his cross-cultural

discussion of "whiteness" by saying how much it has been idealized as

virtue or nobility.

To him, however, the color white only multiplies terror when it is attached

with any object "terrible" in itself.

After a short dramatic scene (Hark!) where the sailors say to each other

that they think there may be something or someone in the after-hold,

Ishmael returns to an examination of Ahab in The Chart. Because Ahab

believes that his skill with charts will help him locate Moby Dick, Ishmael

discusses how one might scientifically track a whale. In The Afidavit,

Ishmael explains in organized form "the natural verity of the main points

of this afiair." He realizes that this story seems preposterous in many

ways and wants to convince the reader that his story is real by listing the

"true" bases for this story in quasi-outline form (first, personal

experiences, then tales of whale fishermen or collective memory, and

finally books). He then looks at why people may not believe these stories.

Perhaps readers haven't heard about the perils or vivid adventures in the

whaling industry, he says. Or maybe they do not understand the immensity of

the whale. He asks that the audience use "human reasoning" when judging his


The chapter called Surmises returns the focus to Ahab, considering how the

captain will accomplish his revenge. Because Ahab must use men as his

tools, Ahab has to be very careful. How can he motivate them? Ahab can

appeal to their hearts, but also he knows that cash will keep them going.

Ahab further knows that he has to watch that he does not leave himself open

to charges of "usurpation." That is, he has to follow standard operating

procedure, lest he give his offcers reason to overrule him.

The Mat-Maker returns to the plot. Ishmael describes slow, dreamy

atmosphere on the ship when they are not after a whale. He and Queequeg are

making a sword-mat, and, in a famous passage, likens their weaving to work

on "the Loom of Time." (The threads of the warp are fixed like necessity.

Man has limited free will: he can interweave his own woof crossthreads into

this fixed structure. When Queequeg's sword hits the loom and alters the

overall pattern, Ishmael calls this chance.) What jolts him out of his

reverie is Tashtego's call for a whale. Suddenly, everyone is busied in

preparations for the whale hunt. Just as they are about to push off in

boats, "five dusky phantoms" emerge around Ahab.

Chapters 48-54


These chapters return us to the action of Moby-Dick. We meet Fedallah for

the first time, described as a dark, sinister figure with a Chinese jacket

and turban made from coiling his own hair around his head. We also meet for

the first time the "tiger-yellow ... natives of the Manillas" (Ahab's boat

crew) who were hiding in the hold of the Pequod. The other crews are

staring at the newly discovered shipmates, but Flask tells them to continue

doing their jobs{that is, to concentrate on hunting the whale.

The Pequod's first lowering after the whale is not very successful.

Queequeg manages to get a dart in the whale but the animal overturns the


The men are nearly crushed by the ship as it passes looking for them,

because a squall has put a mist over everything.

The chapter called The Hyena functions as a mooring of sorts{a self-

conscious look back that puts everything in perspective. In this chapter,

Ishmael talks about laughing at things, what a hyena is known for. Finding

out that such dangerous conditions are typical, Ishmael asks Queequeg to

help him make his will.

Ishmael then comments on Ahab's personal crew. Ahab's decision to have his

own boat and crew, says Ishmael, is not a typical practice in the whaling

industry. But however strange, "in a whaler, wonders soon wane" because

there are so many unconventional sights in a whaler: the sheer variety of

people, the strange ports of call, and the distance and disconnectedness of

the ships themselves from land-based, conventional society. But even though

whalemen are not easily awe-struck, Ishmael does say "that hair- turbaned

Fedallah remained a mufied mystery to the last." He is "such a creature as

civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams,

and that but dimly."

Ishmael then focuses on Fedallah. On the masthead one night, the Parsee

thinks he sees a whale spouting. The whole ship then tries to follow it,

but the whale is not seen again until some days later. Ishmael calls it a

"spirit-spout" because it seems to be a phantom leading them on. Some think

it might be Moby Dick leading the ship on toward its destruction. The ship

sails around the Cape of Good Hope (Africa), a particularly treacherous


Through it all, Ahab commands the deck robustly and even when he is down in

the cabin, he keeps his eye on the cabin-compass that tells him where the

ship is going.

They soon see a ship called "The Goney," or Albatross, a vessel with a

"spectral appearance" that is a long way from home. Of course, Ahab asks

them as they pass by, "Have ye seen the White Whale?" While the other

captain is trying to respond, a gust of wind blows the trumpet from his


Their wakes cross as both ships continue on. The Pequod continues its way

around the world, Ishmael worries that this is dangerous{they might just be

going on in mazes or will all be "[over]whelmed." Ishmael then explains

that these two ships did not have a "gam." A gam, according to Ishmael, is

"a social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-

ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats' crews:

the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two

chief mates on the other."

The Town-Ho's Story is a story within the larger story of Moby-Dick. During

a gam with the ship Town-Ho (which they encounter after the Goney), a white

sailor on the Town-Ho tells this story to Tashtego who shares it with all

the men in the forecastle. Ishmael announces at the beginning of the

chapter that he is telling us what he once told it to some friends in Lima.

The basic story concerns Radney, a mate from Martha's Vineyard, and

Steelkilt, a sailor from Bufialo who have a con ict on board the Town-Ho, a

sperm whaler from Nantucket. Steelkit rebels against Radney's authority,

assaults the mate (after the mate attacks him), and starts a mutiny. The

mutineers are punished and released, but Steelkilt wants revenge. The ship

runs into Moby Dick and, in the process of trying to harpoon him, Radney

falls out of the boat. Moby Dick snatches him in his jaws. Ishmael's

listeners don't necessarily believe him, but he swears on a copy of the

Four Gospels that he is telling the truth.

Chapters 55-65


Here, Melville describes poor representations of whales. To a whaleman who

has actually seen whales, many historical, mythological, and scientific

sources seem inaccurate. As a result, says Ishmael, "you must needs

conclude that the great Leviathan is the one creature in the world which

must remain unpainted to the last." The only solution Ishmael sees is to go

whaling yourself. The next chapter tries to find some acceptable

depictions. To Ishmael's taste the only things that are anywhere close are

two large French engravings from a Garneray painting that show the Sperm

and Right Whales in action. The following chapter tries to expand the

discussion of representations of whales to include whales in various media.

Ishmael then talks about how whalemen have been known to make scrimshaw.

Whalemen who deal with whales so much start seeing whales everywhere, which

is why he mentions stars.

The Brit chapter brings back the encyclopedic cetology chapter type. Brit

is a minute yellow substance upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.

Ishmael uses the chapter as a platform on which to talk about contradictory

views of the sea (frightening "universal cannibalism") and the earth

("green, gentle, and most docile" land). Past the field of Brit in the

water, Daggoo thinks that he sights Moby Dick. It is a false alarm,

however, and it is only a giant squid.

In preparation for a later scene, says Ishmael, he will explain the

whaleline. Made of hemp, this rope is connected to the harpoon at one end

and free at the other so that it can be tied to other boats' lines. Because

it whizzes out when a whale is darted, it is dangerous for the men in the


We then return to more action, where Stubb kills a black sperm whale.

Ishmael vigorously describes the gore to us. In The Dart, Ishmael

backtracks, describing what a harpooneer does and how he uses a dart.

Freely giving his opinion on whaling technique, Ishmael says that mates

should throw both the dart and the lance because the harpooneer should be

fresh, not tired from rowing. Then, to explain the crotch mentioned in the

previous chapter, Ishmael backtracks again to describe the notched stick

that furnishes a rest for the wooden part of the harpoon.

Ishmael then returns to the plot: Stubb wants to eat the freshly killed

whale, although most whalemen do not. (Usually the only creatures that eat

whale meat are sharks.) He calls on the black cook Fleece to make his

supper and make the sharks stop eating the whale esh. In a sermon to the

sharks, the cook tells them that they ought to be more civilized. Stubb and

the cook get into a folksy religious discussion. He then likens Stubb to a

shark. Ishmael then feels that he must describe what whale is like as a

dish. Doing a historical survey of whale-as-dish, Ishmael remarks that no

one except for Stubb and the "Esquimaux" accept it now. Deterrents include

the exceedingly rich quality of the meat and its prodigious quantities.

Furthermore, it seems wrong because hunting the whale makes the meat a

"noble dish" and one has to eat the meat by the whale's own light. But

perhaps this blasphemy isn't so rare, says Ishmael, since the readers

probably eat beef with a knife made from the bone of oxen or pick their

teeth after eating goose with a goose feather.

Chapters 66-73


These chapters get into the minutiae of whaling technique. The Shark

Massacre describes how sharks often swarm around dead whale carcasses,

forcing whalemen to poke them with spades or kill them. Even when sharks

are dead, they are often still dangerous: once, when Queequeg brought one

on deck for its skin, it nearly took his hand off. There's no sacred

Sabbath in whaling, since the gory business of cutting in occurs whenever

there is a kill. Cutting in involves inserting a hook in the whale's

blubber and peeling the blubber off as one might peel off an orange rind in

one strip. Discussing the whale's blubber, Ishmael realizes that it is

dificult to determine exactly what the whale's skin is. There is something

thin and isinglass-like, but that's only the skin of the skin. If we decide

that the blubber of the whale (the long pieces of which are called "blanket-

pieces") is the skin, we are still missing something since blubber only

accounts for 3/4 of the weight of the blanket-pieces. After cutting in, the

whale is then released for its "funeral" in which the "mourners" are

vultures and sharks. The frightful white carcass oats away and a "vengeful

ghost" hovers over it, deterring other ships from going near it.

Ishmael backtracks in The Sphynx, saying that before whalers let a carcass

go, they behead it in a "scientific anatomical feat." Ahab talks to this

head, asking it to tell him of the horrors that it has seen. But Ahab knows

that it doesn't speak and laments its inability to speak: too many horrors

are beyond utterance.

The chapter about the Jeroboam (a ship carrying some epidemic) also

backtracks, referring back to a story Stubb heard during the gam with the

Town-Ho. A man, who had been a prophet among the Shakers in New York,

proclaimed himself the archangel Gabriel on the ship and mesmerized the

crew. Captain Mayhew wanted to get rid of him at the next port, but the

crew threatened desertion. And the sailors aboard the Pequod now see this

very Gabriel in front of them. When Captain Mayhew is telling Ahab a story

about the White Whale, Gabriel keeps interrupting. According to Mayhew, the

Jeroboam first heard about the existence of Moby Dick when they were

speaking to another ship. Gabriel then warned against killing it, calling

it the Shaker God incarnated. They ran into it about a year afterwards and

the ship's leaders decided to hunt it. As the mate was standing in the ship

to throw his lance, the whale ipped the mate into the air and tossed him

into the sea. Nothing was harmed except for the mate, who drowned. Gabriel,

the entire time, had been on the mast-head and said, basically, "I told you

so." When Ahab confirms that he intends to hunt the white whale still,

Gabriel points to him, saying, "Think, think of the blasphemer - dead, and

down there! - beware of the blasphemer's end!" Ahab then realizes that the

Pequod is carrying a letter for the dead mate and tries to hand it over to

the captain on the end of a cutting-spade pole. Somehow, Gabriel gets a

hold of it, impales it on the boat-knife, and sends it back to Ahab's feet

as the Jeroboam pulls away.

Ishmael backtracks again in The Monkey-Rope to explain how Queequeg inserts

the blubber hook. Ishmael, as Queequeg's bowsman, ties the monkey-rope

around his waist as Queequeg is on the whale's oating body trying to attach

the hook. (In a footnote, we learn that only on the Pequod were the monkey

and this holder actually tied together, an improvement introduced by

Stubb.) While Ishmael holds him, Tashtego and Daggoo are also ourishing

their whale-spades to keep the sharks away. When Dough-Boy, the steward,

offers Queequeg some tepid ginger and water, the mates frown at the in

uence of pesky Temperance activists and make the steward bring him alcohol.

Meanwhile, as the Pequod oats along, they spot a right whale. After killing

him, Stubb asks Flask what Ahab might want with this "lump of foul lard."

Flask responds that Fedallah says that a whaler with a Sperm Whale's head

on her starboard side and a Right Whale's head on her larboard will never

afterwards capsize. They then get into a discussion in which both of them

confess that they do not like Fedallah and think of him as "the devil in

disguise." In this instance and always, Fedallah watches and stands in

Ahab's shadow. Ishmael notes that the Parsee's shadow seemed to blend with

and lengthen Ahab's.

Chapters 74-81


The paired chapters (74 and 75) do an anatomic comparison of the sperm

whale's head and the right whale's head. In short, the sperm whale has a

great well of sperm, ivory teeth, long lower jaw, and one external spout-

hole; the right whale has bones shaped like Venetian blinds in his mouth,

huge lower lip, a tongue, and one external spout- hole. Ishmael calls the

right whale stoic and the sperm "platonian." The Battering-Ram discusses

the blunt, large, wall-like part of the head that seems to be just a "wad."

In actuality, inside the thin, sturdy casing is a "mass of tremendous

life." He goes on to explain, in The Great Heidelberg Tun (a wine cask in

Heidelberg with a capacity of 49,000 gallons), that there are two

subdivisions of the upper part of a whale's head: the Case and the junk.

The Case is the Great Heidelberg Tun since it contains the highly-prized

spermaceti. Ishmael then dramatizes the tapping of the case by Tashtego. It

goes by bucket from the "cistern" (well) once Tashtego finds the spot. In

this scene, Tashtego accidentally falls in to the case. In panic, Daggoo

fouls the lines and the head falls into the ocean. Queequeg dives in and

manages to save Tashtego.

In The Prairie, Ishmael discusses the nineteenth-century arts of

physiognomy (the art of judging human character from facial features)and

phrenology (the study of the shape of the skull, based on the belief that

it reveals character and mental capacity). By such analyses, the sperm

whale's large, clear brow gives him the dignity of god. The whale's

"pyramidical silence" demonstrates the sperm whale's genius. But later

Ishmael abandons this line of analysis, saying that he isn't a

professional. Besides, the whale wears a "false brow" because it really

doesn't have much in its skull besides the spermy stufi. (The brain is

about 10 inches big.) Ishmael then says that he would rather feel a man's

spine to know him than his skull, throwing out phrenology. Judging by

spines (which, like brains, are a network of nerves) would discount the

smallness of the whale's brain and admire the wonderful comparative

magnitude of his spinal cord. The hump becomes a sign of the whale's

indomitable spirit.

The Jungfrau (meaning Virgin in German) is out of oil and meets the Pequod

to beg for some. Ahab, of course, asks about the White Whale, but the

Jungfrau has no information. Almost immediately after the captain of the

Jungfrau steps off the Pequod's deck, whales are sighted and he goes after

them desperately. The Pequod also gives chase and succeeds in harpooning

the whale before the Germans. But, after bringing the carcass alongside the

ship, they discover that the whale is sinking and dragging the ship along

with it. Ishmael then discusses the frequency of sinking whales.

The Jungfrau starts chasing a fin-back, a whale that resembles a sperm

whale to the unskilled observer.

Chapter 82-92


Ishmael strays from the main action of the plot again, diving into the

heroic history of whaling. First, he draws from Greek mythology, the Judeo-

Christian Bible, and Hindu mythology. He then discusses the Jonah story in

particular (a story that has been shadowing this entire novel from the

start) through the eyes of an old Sag-Harbor whaleman who is crusty and

questions the Jonah story based on personal experience.

Ishmael then discusses pitchpoling by describing Stubb going through the

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