I. In this riff: Chapters 81-83 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ch. 81, “The Pequod meets The Virgin.”
In this long chapter, the crew of a German whaler called the Jungfrau (virgin), hail The Pequod. The Jungfrau’s captain Derick De Deer begs some whale oil from the Nantucket ship, and Ishmael notes the irony, although he also notes that “what in the Fishery is technically called a clean [ship] (that is, an empty one), [is] well deserving the name of Jungfrau or the Virgin.”
Just as The Pequod shares some oil for Captain De Deer’s lamp, a pod of whales is sighted, and both ships lower boats, entering into competition to lance the largest and slowest of the whales, who swims “many fathoms in the rear…a huge, humped old bull [who] seemed afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity.”
Ishmael notes that it’s possible that this old whale is an outsider to the pod: “Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social. Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake…” Stubb points out that the old whale has “lost his tiller,” and the crew soon spot the missing limb.
…the cause of his devious wake in the unnatural stump of his starboard fin. Whether he had lost that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say.
We have here another double for mad Ahab.
III. The race between the two crews carries out in a mix of comedy and pathos. The mates of The Pequod, Stubb and Flask, provide comic bravado as they encourage their boats to row harder (“Don’t ye love sperm? There goes three thousand dollars, men!—a bank!—a whole bank!” yaps Flask).
IV. First mate Starbuck and Ishmael offer more empathy and respect for the aged whale. Consider this portrait Ishmael paints:
As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale’s eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Ishmael’s final sentence here doubly damns aesthetics and religion, suggesting that the “merry-makings of men” are underwritten in blood and murder—no matter if we “preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”
V. When they dart the beast, its agitated body rolls around, revealing an infected wound:
Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discoloured bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.
“A nice spot,” cried Flask; “just let me prick him there once.”
“Avast!” cried Starbuck, “there’s no need of that!”
But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask’s boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke.
The bloody shower is more foreshadowing. Or maybe it’s just the everyday business of whaling.
VI. When the crew of The Pequod cut into the whale, they find “the entire length of a corroded harpoon…imbedded in his flesh, on the lower part of the bunch before described.” Ishmael notes that finding spears in whales is not wholly unusual, but then gives us a more dramatic detail:
But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor’ West Indian long before America was discovered.
Ishmael here posits the whale’s primeval primacy.
VII. Ch. 81 converts its bloody business back into comedy at the end. The Jungfrau mistakes a fin-back whale for a sperm whale—but fin-backs are a “species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming.” Ishmael notes that “Derick and all his host were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute.” He knows what Derick does not know: that the Jungfrau’s ” bold, hopeful chase” is actually a doomed, hopeless case. Ishmael ends with a wry punchline: “Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.”
VIII. Ch. 82, “The Honor and the Glory of Whaling.”
In this chapter our boy Ish, as always, is horny for whaling.
IX. In another metatextual opening, Ish begins by calling attention to his discursive narrative style: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” He then proceeds to chronicle the “many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sort” who are part of the whaling fraternity (noting that he is “transported with the reflection” that he belongs, “though but subordinately,” to this grand company).
X. It strikes me now that Ch. 82 is another of Moby-Dick’s stand-alone chapters, and that it would actually make a fine introduction to anyone wanting to dip their toe into its mass. Read it here.
Ever-largehearted-and-often-bombastic Ishmael lards his chapter with every stripe of whalemen, including:
“The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter…the first whaleman…”
St. George of “that famous story of St. George and the Dragon; which dragon I maintain to have been a whale…”
Hercules, “that antique Crockett and Kit Carson—that brawny doer of rejoicing good deeds, [who] was swallowed down and thrown up by a whale…”
“Vishnoo [who] became incarnate in a whale, and sounding down in him to the uttermost depths, rescued the sacred volumes.”
“Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo! there’s a member-roll for you! What club but the whaleman’s can head off like that?” our jocular boy concludes jocularly.
XII. Ch. 83, “Jonah Historically Regarded.”
Way back in Ch. 9, “The Sermon,” Melville—via Ishmael, via Father Mapple—retold the biblical story of Jonah. Here, that story is squared against the knowledge of whalemen—and one dubious sailor in particular, a certain Sag-Harbor—who remain dubious of “this historical story of Jonah and the whale.” Ishmael points out though that “there were some sceptical Greeks and Romans, who, standing out from the orthodox pagans of their times, equally doubted the story of Hercules and the whale, and Arion and the dolphin; and yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.”
Ishmael tries to refute Sag-Harbor and the other Nantuckeers’ arguments against the veracity of Jonah’s voyage in the whale. Ish points out that “a German exegetist supposes that Jonah must have taken refuge in the floating body of a dead whale—even as the French soldiers in the Russian campaign turned their dead horses into tents, and crawled into them.” He also suggests that it’s possible “that when Jonah was thrown overboard from the Joppa ship, he straightway effected his escape to another vessel near by, some vessel with a whale for a figure-head…possibly called The Whale…”
Ultimately though, Ishmael is unable to scientifically explain how Jonah traveled from the coast of Joppa to Ninevah in just three days. He concludes then that, “this very idea of Jonah’s going to Nineveh via the Cape of Good Hope [is] a signal magnification of the general miracle.”
Our boy Ish is a believer.