Moby-Dick Chapters 50 – 60

Thanks to my AusReadingMonth posting schedule, the Moby-Dick blogging timetable has suffered. To do a little catch up, I will merge two Moby-Dick chapter posts into one.

Chapter 50: Ahab’s Boat and Crew • Fedallah

  • Flask & Stubb discuss the unusual nature of Ahab going out in his own boat, crewed by a group of unknown men led by Fedallah.
  • They realise that Ahab has been planning his revenge on Moby-Dick for quite some time now.
  • Fedallah remains a mystery to the crew to the last.
    • Melville finishes the chapter with a paragraph, that at best, could be called a stereotypical view of Asiastic communities. With ghostly aboriginalness and hints of the demons or devils that created said race.
  • Strangeness, the unknown and breaks with usual behaviour emphasise the unique nature of this particular whaling expedition.

Chapter 51: The Spirit-Spout

  • Lovely ode to the sea at night –
    • It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.
  • A phantom whale spout seems to be leading the Pequod on, around the Cape of Good Hope, through storms and demoniac waves.
  • Ahab stood up to the blast. He captains the ship firmly and steadfastly, despite his inner chaos.

Chapter 52: The Pequod Meets the Albatross

  • The Albatross, also known as the Goney, was bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus.
  • A gam that failed to happen –
    • the crew said not one word to our own look-outs.
    • the captain somehow dropped his mouth trumpet into the sea.
    • the wind carried away his words.
  • The school of fish that had been following the Pequod, changed course as the two wakes were fairly crossed to now follow the Albatross. A not uncommon sight at sea.
    • However, Ahab takes this as a personal affront.
  • Ishmael philosophy –
    • In pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of the demon phantom that, some time of other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

Chapter 53: The Gam

  • Naturally, Ishmael now needs a whole chapter to tell us all about gams or the peculiar usages of whaling-vessels when meeting each other in foreign seas.
  • Gams are important for the passing of letters, papers, news, the latest whaling intelligence and for an agreeable chat.
  • He discusses the differences between nationalities re a gam as well as the differences between the meeting of merchant ships, Men-of-War, slave ships and pirates. Of course, the Yankee whaling-ship version is the preferred one. You gotta love Ishmael’s one-sided, one-eyed love for his way of doing things!

Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story (As told at the Golden Inn.)

  • A second gam, more successful than the first.
  • A homeward bound, Town-Ho, manned almost wholly by Polynesians.
  • They give Ahab news of the White Whale.
  • But NOT the secret part of the tragedy about to be narrated as this part was unknown to the captain of the Town-Ho.
  • Three confederate white seaman…communicated it to Tashtego
    • Who rambled in his sleep and aroused the curiosity of his shipmates, so that he had to tell them all when he awoke. 
    • However, by such a strange delicacy, that occurs on board, this story never reached those abaft the Pequod’s main-mast.
    • That is, no one told Ahab.
  • Ishmael now shares this darker thread…this strange affair with us.
  • Naturally, he doesn’t just tell us straight though.
    • He insists in playing with time and place by relating the story as he told it later in Lima to a lounging circle of Spanish friends, one saint’s eve.
    • We now understand that this is a story told and retold several times. And like all such stories, it has been reinvented, reinterpreted and revised with said repetition.
    • If I had been sitting in that thick-gilt piazza of the Golden Inn, I would have needed several stiff drinks to get me through this rather long-winded whaling tale!
    • And I would have taken affront at the Sydney men, who are so much distrusted by our whaling captains! Convict stereotyping 101.
    • Although I will grant you that the men who ran off to join a whaling ship, were probably not the model citizens of Sydney-town, that we prefer to remember.
  • This story really does go on a bit.
  • I suggest that Ishmael may have also partaken of a few cleansing ales by the time he got to the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea. That’s beautiful, man, I mean really beautiful, you moved me. I love you bro.
  • And just like any drunken story telling session, Ishmael vows that his bizarre story is true by swearing on the Holy Book held by a venerable priest, drawn into the inn for such purpose. I wouldn’t lie to you. I swear on my mother’s grave. I love youse all, you’re the best, I mean it, really the best.
  • The main thing we need to know, and that Ahab doesn’t, is that Radney was killed by Moby-Dick.

Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales

  • Thank God that’s over!
  • Back on board the Pequod and Ishmael decides to give us some information about the history of whales in paintings.
  • The living leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters.

  • the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by doing so, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.

Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

  • Now a chapter on whales in books and stories.
  • It seems that Beale is the only one whose drawings are worthy of checking out, according to Ishmael/Melville.
    • Melville admired Beale so much that Philip Hoare, in his Guardian piece 6 Oct 2008, states that he stole wholesale from Beale’s account (in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, 1839) – there are passages in Moby-Dick that are almost verbatim lifts from the surgeon’s book.
  • Every other artist gets a big, fat fail from Ishmael. Artistic licence and imagination doesn’t compare to a proper scientific, real-life study. 
Sperm Whales | 1839 | Thomas Beale

Chapter 57: Of Whales in Paint; In Teeth; In Wood; In Sheet-Iron; In Stone; In Mountains; In Stars

  • Which brings us to all the other ways that whales have been depicted in art.
  • As usual, Melville’s chapter headings pretty much tell the whole story.
  • Ishmael fills out the rest with names, dates and examples.

Chapter 58: Brit

  • No, not a chapter about the English whaling experience.
  • Brit is the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.
  • We now call it zooplankton or krill.
  • For leagues and leagues it undulated around us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat.
    • Sadly I couldn’t find any photos that showed such a scene. Krill schools seem to have be depleted since Melville’s times.
    • these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea.
  • As a special delight, this chapter is read aloud by Benedict Cumberbatch on the Moby-Dick Big Read.

Chapter 59: Squid

  • Bet you can’t guess what this chapter is about?
  • Thankfully, Melville also includes some lovely imagery.
    • when the slippered waves whispered together as they softly ran on.
    • we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.

Chapter 60: The Line

  • Really a chapter about rope.
  • Hemp, Manilla rope, Indian.
  • I learnt how the rope on a whaling ship is coiled (or layers on concentric spiralisations) into a barrel until it is needed – all two hundred fathoms of it!
    • the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions.
    • when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play.
  • Ishmael philosophy
    • All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realise the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.
  • If you’d like to follow the Pequod’s voyage on a map, check out the Moby-Dick page cartographic online.
This group of chapters does not really move the story forward, but we learn about life on board a whaling ship, whales in art and how whales feed. We are SO ready to chase down and catch our first whale! The anticipation is excruciating.

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