Moby Dick Mondays – Week 11

Ti of the blog Book Chatter is sponsoring a challenge/readalong to read the classic Moby Dick. On Mondays, we’ll be posting about our progress. I am listening to the unabridged audiodisks for this book, which my husband listened to and loved.

Moby Dick Monday Medium Button

In Week 10, Ishmael told us all about the spermaceti oil, the holy grail of whalers. (And yes, both the oil and the whale were named after this milky-white substance that was originally mistaken for sperm.) Now the crew must get the oil out of the whale’s head and onto the ship.

It turns out to be a rather primitive procedure. Tashtego, the Native American harpooneer, jumps onto the head, cuts into it, and lowers a bucket. Then, using a long pole and much like drawing water from a well, he dips and pulls and sends the bucket back to the ship, where it is dumped into a large tub. This process is repeated until the oil is depleted from the whale’s head. But after the eightieth or ninetieth bucket, Tashtego slips and falls into the whale head! To make matters worse, as the crew tries to rescue him, the head comes lose, and starts to sink to the bottom of the sea with Tashtego buried alive inside! Ishmael recounts:

“But hardly had the blinding vapor cleared away, when a naked figure with a boarding-sword in its hand, was for one swift moment seen hovering over the bulwarks. The next, a loud splash announced that my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue.”

And in fact, Queequeg successfully delivered Tashtego from the head in a process Ishmael likened to childbirth, and the crisis was over.

After that little bit of excitement, Ishmael, as is his wont, returns to his digressions, this time on the characteristics of the head of a whale, both inside and out.

Sperm whales have the largest head of any animal. One head can be about 20 feet long, 10 feet high, and 7 feet across. The head has a distinctive box-like shape. The single blowhole is s-shaped and about 20 inches long. The brain, which you can see in the lower right of the diagram above, weighs about 20 pounds; it is the largest brain of any animal, and yet it is small in relation to the total size of the whale. Most of the room in the head is taken up by “the case,” which as you may recall, holds the spermaceti oil. The “junk” in the lower sac holds a denser oil in a honeycombed, waxy base.

There are between 20-26 large conical teeth in each side of the lower jaw. The teeth in the upper jaw rarely erupt and are often considered to be vestigial. It appears that teeth may not be necessary for feeding, since they do not break through the gums until puberty, if at all, and healthy sperm whales have been caught that have no teeth. The teeth seem to come in quite handy, however, for biting off the limbs of obsessed ship captains.

Shortly after the incident with Tashtego, the Pequod encounters yet another whaler, this one from Bremen – the Jungfrau, and now comes one of the more tragic episodes of the tale.

As the ships communicate, another pod of sperm whales is spotted, and both ships go on the chase. There are nine whales in the pod, but eight are young and much too fast for the whalemen. The ninth, however, is an old crippled bull with only one fin and no hope at all of outrunning the hunters. [I suspect that when Ishmael referred to the “fin” he was actually referring to the “flipper” which can you see in the diagram below. A flipper may look tiny in relation to the whale but actually it is about five feet long and three feet wide.]

As the men of both ships give chase, the panicked whale beats his side continually with his one fin “in an agony of fright.” The Pequod’s men catch him, and all three harpooners send their barbs into the whale. A detailed description of his horrible death follows. And yet, after all that, “the carcase sank.” The whole killing was for nothing.

Bizarrely, or ironically (one would hope), the next chapter is entitled “The Honor and Glory of Whaling,” in which Ishmael cites the many exalted references to whaling in history and mythology.

Rock carvings dated 5,000-6,000 years ago


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Challenge, Readalong and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Moby Dick Mondays – Week 11

  1. Alyce says:

    Drowning in a whale head would definitely be an awful way to go (and how nice of Queequeg to save him). I read this book in high school, but I didn’t remember this part. It makes me wonder what else I’ve forgotten.

  2. Ti says:

    It’s nice that you include all of these diagrams. It helps to make sense of it because as you know, the details are many! I am reading Chapter 65 so I am still a bit behind.

  3. Margot says:

    I’m enjoying learning about whales and all the lore associated with it. It’s hard to understand from our 21st century viewpoint why all of this was important. It just seems so unnecessary.

  4. softdrink says:

    Have you read Fluke? It’s sorta about whales…and much shorter. 😀

  5. Jenners says:

    Are you going to get an honorary degree in whale anatomy once this is over?

  6. Staci says:

    This part of the book doesn’t sound very enthralling…but I’m still awake and waiting for your next installment!! Can I list this as “read” on my Goodreads??? LOL!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.