Tagged: Cetology

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 canucks.nhl.com

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

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:

via Babylit.com

via Babylit.com

  • 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.

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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.