MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 41-47]

Welcome to Part 8 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture we will discuss Chapters 41-47.

In Chapter 41, Ishmael recounts the various stories about Moby Dick. Some people suggest that Moby Dick is ubiquitous; having been encountered at opposite points of the world at one time. Others suggest that the white whale is immortal because it has escaped numerous attacks unharmed with many spears planted in his back. Immortality and omnipresence are also characteristics of the God of Abraham. Melville might be alluding to these similarities to suggest that Moby Dick is the embodiment of that god.

Ishmael also relates the story of how Captain Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick. Ahab vainly tried to attack Moby Dick with a knife after the whale had destroyed Ahab’s boat. Then the whale ripped away Ahab’s leg, and swam away. Ahab was rescued by the crew of the main ship, but he did not receive proper medical care for a long time because they were far from shore. During this interval of extreme anguish, Ishmael believes that Ahab developed his hatred and desire for revenge against Moby Dick. “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

In Chapter 42, Ishmael explains the strange feeling of dread associated with the color of white. Though the color white is often regarded as a symbol of purity, chastity, and even royalty, Ishmael notes that “there lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.” For example, the terror inspired by the white polar bear and the white shark is intensified by their whiteness. The pallor that a corpse assumes strikes fear in the living; and furthermore, we wrap the dead in a shroud of white. This latter example in particular suggests that Moby Dick symbolizes death. Just as the living are terrified of Death, so too do they fear Moby Dick.

In Chapter 43, two sailors are working on the deck of the Pequod. One of them hears a noise in the hull of the ship, and concludes that “There is somebody down in the after-hold that has not yet been seen on deck.” The mystery will be solved in the next video lecture.

In Chapter 44, Ishmael explains that Moby Dick is regularly seen in the same location every year. The time and place is known in the whaling industry as the Season-on-the-Line. This is also the place where Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick; and therefore the place is a fitting site for Ahab’s revenge. However, the Pequod will not be able to reach the Season-on-the-Line in the first year of the voyage. This circumstance seems to aggravate Ahab’s anger. The crew frequently sees Ahab burst forth from his cabin as if he were trying to escape the torture of his own thoughts.

“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.” Prometheus was an Ancient Greek god who was chained to a rock. Every day a bird would eat his organs, and every night his organs would regenerate, only to be eaten again the following day. Ahab is similar to Prometheus. His thoughts and desire for revenge are agonizing; and they are renewed every day that he does not encounter Moby Dick.

In Chapter 45, Ishmael acknowledges that many people may not believe the stories about Moby Dick’s power and seeming immortality. Therefore, he cites examples of other sperm whales that demonstrated extraordinary strength and intelligence. In one instance, a sperm whale destroyed an entire ship. One member of the crew recounts the harrowing experience: “Every fact seemed to warrant me in concluding that it was anything but chance which directed his operations; he made two several attacks upon the ship, at a short interval between them, both of which, according to their direction, were calculated to do us the most injury, by being made ahead, and thereby combining the speed of the two objects for the shock; to effect which, the exact manoeuvres which he made were necessary. His aspect was most horrible, and such as indicated resentment and fury. He came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered, and in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings.” This account contradicts Starbuck’s assertion that whales are merely dumb brutes, which are incapable of reasoning and deprived of free will. The whale in the sailor’s story demonstrates forethought and a capacity for revenge.

In Chapter 46, Ishmael explains that despite Ahab’s ultimate goal to kill Moby Dick, Ahab still pursues other whales because he needs to keep his crew sharp and ready for the encounter with the white whale. “To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.” Furthermore, Ahab knows that however enthusiastic the crew was about aiding Ahab in his quest for revenge against Moby Dick, the crew might grow mutinous if they have no expectation of being paid. “I will not strip these men, thought Ahab, of all hopes of cash—aye, cash. They may scorn cash now; but let some months go by, and no perspective promise of it to them, and then this same quiescent cash all at once mutinying in them, this same cash would soon cashier Ahab.”

In Chapter 47, Ishmael describes a particularly calm and sunny day. Ishmael and Queequeg are engaged in making a mat, while other members of the crew lounge lazily about the ship. The atmosphere of the ship feels like a dream according to Ishmael. But suddenly, a sharp cry from the mast-head disrupts the calm. Tashtego, who is on watch, shouts that he sees whales. The sailors immediately spring to action. The harpooneers climb into their respective boats. “But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.” These phantoms were the cause of the mysterious noise heard by the sailor in Chapter 43. But what are they?

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Chapter 41
“One of the wild suggestions referred to, as at last coming to be linked with the White Whale in the minds of the superstitiously inclined, was the unearthly conceit that Moby Dick was ubiquitous; that he had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time.”

“Knowing that after repeated, intrepid assaults, the White Whale had escaped alive; it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.”

“His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice.”

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

“Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.”

Chapter 42
“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

Chapter 43
“There is somebody down in the after-hold that has not yet been seen on deck.”

Chapter 44
“Ahab, who knew the sets of all tides and currents; and thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”

“Where Ahab’s chances of accomplishing his object have hitherto been spoken of, allusion has only been made to whatever way-side, antecedent, extra prospects were his, ere a particular set time or place were attained, when all possibilities would become probabilities, and, as Ahab fondly thought, every possibility the next thing to a certainty. That particular set time and place were conjoined in the one technical phrase—the Season-on-the-Line. For there and then, for several consecutive years, Moby Dick had been periodically descried, lingering in those waters for awhile, as the sun, in its annual round, loiters for a predicted interval in any one sign of the Zodiac. There it was, too, that most of the deadly encounters with the white whale had taken place; there the waves were storied with his deeds; there also was that tragic spot where the monomaniac old man had found the awful motive to his vengeance.”

“The tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”

Chapter 45
“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

“Though most men have some vague flitting ideas of the general perils of the grand fishery, yet they have nothing like a fixed, vivid conception of those perils, and the frequency with which they recur.”

“People ashore have indeed some indefinite idea that a whale is an enormous creature of enormous power; but I have ever found that when narrating to them some specific example of this two-fold enormousness, they have significantly complimented me upon my facetiousness; when, I declare upon my soul, I had no more idea of being facetious than Moses, when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”

“Every fact seemed to warrant me in concluding that it was anything but chance which directed his operations; he made two several attacks upon the ship, at a short interval between them, both of which, according to their direction, were calculated to do us the most injury, by being made ahead, and thereby combining the speed of the two objects for the shock; to effect which, the exact manoeuvres which he made were necessary. His aspect was most horrible, and such as indicated resentment and fury. He came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered, and in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings.”

“The dark ocean and swelling waters were nothing; the fears of being swallowed up by some dreadful tempest, or dashed upon hidden rocks, with all the other ordinary subjects of fearful contemplation, seemed scarcely entitled to a moment’s thought; the dismal looking wreck, and the horrid aspect and revenge of the whale, wholly engrossed my reflections, until day again made its appearance.”

Chapter 46
“To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.”

“Nor was Ahab unmindful of another thing. In times of strong emotion mankind disdain all base considerations; but such times are evanescent.”

“Even the high lifted and chivalric Crusaders of old times were not content to traverse two thousand miles of land to fight for their holy sepulchre, without committing burglaries, picking pockets, and gaining other pious perquisites by the way. Had they been strictly held to their one final and romantic object—that final and romantic object, too many would have turned from in disgust. I will not strip these men, thought Ahab, of all hopes of cash—aye, cash. They may scorn cash now; but let some months go by, and no perspective promise of it to them, and then this same quiescent cash all at once mutinying in them, this same cash would soon cashier Ahab.”

Chapter 47
“The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course—its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”

“But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.”

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