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.
Some of you may be wondering: so where are Ahab and Moby Dick already?!!! Here’s the answer: this book has 135 chapters (albeit short ones). Moby Dick does not appear until Chapter 133! So why does everyone think this great classic is about Ahab and Moby Dick? On one level this book is [nothing but] a great treatise on whales and whaling and a philosophical musing about their metaphorical nature. But in fact, throughout the entire book, Ahab and Moby hover in the background like a spectral chorus, guiding the thoughts and actions of the characters, and adding a background chord of foreboding to the music of the book. So if you are waiting for “the action” to start, it in fact already started, from the moment the boys stepped aboard the Pequod. And as for meeting Moby at last, well, we’ve got about 40 chapters to go! … But I digress!
When we left off, Ishmael had just witnessed the senseless killing of a crippled whale, and then segued into “The Honor and Glory of Whaling.” Next, he speculates on whether the whales spout consists of water or vapor: “surely a noteworthy thing.”
Celebration of the whale’s tail is next, and indeed, a beautiful thing it is.
The two section of the tail are called flukes. As Ishmael notes:
“In no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely defined than in the crescentic borders of these flukes. At its utmost expansion in the full grown whale, the tail will considerably exceed twenty feet across.”
The tail is used for propulsion, as a mace when fighting other whales, for sweeping the area in some sort of sensory way (similar to the function of an elephant’s trunk), slapping the water (known as lobtailing; Ishmael interprets this as play, but modern cetologists believe this practice is used to communicate with other whales), and as a positioning mechanism before diving (modern photographers no doubt believe this practice is used for posing).
Meanwhile, the Pequod continues on its circumnavigation of the globe, passing through the straits of Sunda dividing Sumatra from Java. There they encounter a “vast aggregation” of sperm whales. Other whalers are also in the vicinity, since it was known for rich sperm whale hunting. The Pequod’s harpooners send their darts flying, but only one whale is captured. The rest get away.
This leads Ishmael to give us a lecture on the legal complications of whaling: for example, whose whale is it if one ship harpoons it but another picks it up? He cites two rules:
“I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.”
He suggests analogously that there are many examples of the operation of these doctrines in every day life. He asks:
“What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite [a mite is an old British coin worth one-eighth of a penny] but a Fast-Fish? …What was America in 1492 but a loose-fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing [stealing] it for his royal master and mistress?”