Moby Dick Read-A-Long Chapters 31-45: Schooled in Cetology

Moby Dick Read-A-Long

I’m having a hard time writing this post because there’s so much I want to say. This is the section where I went from “this is pretty good/funny” to “Oh. This is sublime.”

The thing that struck me is that Moby Dick is so honest. Ishmael tells us everything we need to know about whales, and more. Ahab admits that he’s chasing the White Whale to exact revenge – he revels in it. You’d think a person would be sort of embarrassed about that. Starbuck has doubts and tells Ahab immediately.  When I had questions – how on earth can anyone find a whale in the ocean? Why is it a big deal that Moby Dick is white? – Melville answers them, thoroughly. No suspension of disbelief required. Yet at the same time, symbols, allusions, and imagery abound – you know, all that good high school English stuff.

So not only is Moby-Dick postmodern before there was a postmodern, but it’s creative nonfiction before THAT was a thing, either. Amazing.

Share your thoughts in the comments, or better yet, link to your own post.

Lost at sea? For all the details on this read-a-long, including schedule and sign up, click here.

Chapters 31-45

  • Cetology: Chapter 32 is called Cetology and it’s the first of the “whale” chapters. So far, it’s the one I marked up more than any other. This is the thing that readers complain about, I mean, we were just getting somewhere with the story, and we’re taking a 15 page detour to talk about the science of whales? But it’s amazing. Here are some passages I liked:

As yet, however, the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life.

What could be worse than the unwritten life? This chapter is full of literary analogies. Ishmael classifies whales using book sizes – it makes no sense, but somehow it’s perfect. Melville was a total book nerd and probably figured his readers might be, too. Way to know your audience!

The Killer is never hunted. I never heard what sort of oil he has. Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.

Growing up in Vancouver, whales=killer whales. So far, this is the only time they’re mentioned but Melville has a good point about their name.

This killer whale has hurt me many times over the years. via

This killer whale has hurt me many times over the years. via

uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous whales…the Pudding-Headed Whale… can hardly help suspecting them for mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing.

Whoa, nice Shakespeare reference. Pretty bold. Also, “Pudding-Headed Whale.”

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

Makes me wonder what Ishmael means – that there’s more to the story? That the story isn’t the point, the reader has to build on it?

It was the idea also, that this same spermaceti was that quickening humor of the Greenland Whale which the first syllable of the word literally expresses…When, as I opine, in the course of time, the true nature of spermaceti became known, its original name was still retained by the dealers; no doubt to enhance its value by a notion so strangely significant of its scarcity.

I’m just laughing because obviously labeling something “Whale Jizz” is going to enhance it’s value. Obviously.

Moving on. There were other high points in this section:



  • Sing Out For New Stars: I’ve referenced the children’s “Baby Lit” version of Moby Dick I bought for my son (… and myself) a few times. My terribly MS Paint-ed logo uses one of the illustrations. Another one of the pages in that book contains the words “Sing out for new stars.” Something about that grabbed me, and I finally read the whole passage in this section. And I love it.

…the first pyramids were founded for astronomical purposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stair-like formation of all four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of the legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.


  • Melville’s influence: One of the best things about reading classics is recognizing their influence on modern literature. As I read about Ahab’s ivory prosthetic leg, I was reminded of J.M. Cotzee’s 2005 novel Slow Man. The main character is a curmudgeonly and solitary old man who loses his leg in a bicycle accident. But in some ways, “slow man” is the anti-Ahab, as he can’t even remember the name of the man responsible, let alone obsess about revenge. Slow Man is a postmodern work, and I’m beginning to think that most postmodernist were influenced by Melville to some degree. In this case, I’m convinced, since I found a quote from Slow Man in which a prosthetic leg is compared to a harpoon. That ain’t no coincidence.
  • White on White: So I mentioned there’s a whole chapter on the colour white. What the hell do you say about white for a whole chapter? Try this on for size:

…the sailor, beholding the scenery of the Antarctic seas; where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what seems a boundless churchyard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses.

Beautiful and devastating. I love “shivering and half shipwrecked.” Might be my new literary earworm.

Tune in Next Week: Time to chase some whales.

WWW Banner


Major fail on my part. Now I’m just not including the hyphen to be consistent. Ughhh.

I’m not the only one who loved Chapter 32:

What did you think of this section? Link to your blog post below and drop me a line in the comments.



  1. Pingback: Moby Dick Read-A-Long: Sign Up! | Reading in Bed
  2. Heather

    The whale jizz part makes me giggle every time. Can you imagine…well, never mind.


    The cetology part is a little boring to me, but kind of funny at the same time. I mean, he’s all Hey! I know about whales and here’s the scoop!” but he really doesn’t know all that much and it cracks me up. At the same time, he does know more than I expected he would. Does that make sense?

    I like when Ishmael talks about being up on the mast-head and how he’s maybe not the best scout because he’s a daydreamer. Yeah. That would be me. I would be too distracted by the view and where it took my thoughts, and I’d probably forget that I’m supposed to be looking for whales. Or I’d see whales and be all distracted by how beautiful they are to alert anyone that they’re there for killing.

    • lauratfrey

      I thought it was funny, in an absurd way. Like, he doesn’t really know what makes a whale a fish (or… not) or how they’re classified, so he makes it up, but it sounds just as good as the real thing.

      I liked that part too. I keep picturing Ishmael as some kind of stoner 🙂 He’s so mellow…

  3. ebookclassics

    I find the cetology chapter a bit boring too, but I don’t mind the whole chapter about white. My favourite chapter is the Cabin-Table where the ship mates get to enter Ahab’s cabin for dinner based on where they stand in the pecking order. I also liked Sunset where Ahab is stewing in his need for vengeance. Enjoying the book, but itching for less words and more action.

  4. David

    “The Whiteness of the Whale” was an incredible chapter. He goes from just talking about the color white to talking about good and evil and other mind-blowing crap.

  5. jaynesbooks

    So for the lateness of the post, but honestly, if not for the fact that I am listening to a podcast through LibriVox, I could have fallen asleep through this chapter and just kinda given up. I realize that we are only about 40% of the way through the book at this point, but honestly, I just want to know what is going on the ship, not a history lesson about the Roman Empire nor a lesson on whales; I personally don’t see how they relate to the story. That being said, the play put in for Chapters 36-40 was a nice break.

    Question: do we ever get back to the story? I feel like I want to give up the story…

    • lauratfrey

      We do! But, yeah, it’s slow. I think I called my next post, on chapters 46-60, “digressions” so… yeah, lots more trivia, etc.

      So you are listening to it? Who reads it? I should try listening to a chapter…

  6. Pingback: Reading Roundup: June 2013 | Reading in Bed

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