In one of many considerations of cetology (the study of whales), Ishmael tells us of various types of leviathan, of which he values the sperm whale most highly. His attention then shifts to life aboard ship as he discusses the chain of command and some of the ways in which this hierarchy is demonstrated in daily life. The narrator considers the beauties and dangers of serving watch at the masthead.
Melville breaks the intensity of Ahab's introduction with these informative chapters in which Ishmael considers types of whales as well as life aboard ship.
Ishmael's discussion of the hierarchy of whales demonstrates his pride in, and the importance he places on, whaling. He has deepest admiration for the sperm whale. It is, he says, the largest denizen of the globe and the most formidable to encounter, earning any experienced whaler's respect. More important to the whaling business, it is also the most valuable type of whale because it is the leading source of spermaceti, a white, wax-like substance taken from the oil in the head and used to make cosmetics, ointments, and candles. To Ishmael, the sperm whale is a noble creature, adding significance to the business of whaling but also to Ahab's quest, of which we are just beginning to be informed.
A whaling vessel also has a kind of hierarchy, a chain of command that is essential to discipline and efficiency. Its effect can be seen in the daily lives of the men aboard. The crew on a whaler is quartered at the front of the vessel; the captain, mates, and harpooners sleep at the back of the ship. Of special interest is the respect shown the harpooners. Their backgrounds may be primitive, as is the case on this voyage, but they are treated like a class of officers because of the importance of their unique skills. In the old days, two hundred years before our story, authority aboard Dutch whalers was divided between the regular naval captain and a "Specksynder" — literally, a "Fat-Cutter," but in fact the chief harpooner who controlled the whale hunt. While this office no longer exists in the industry of Ishmael's time, dominated by Americans, harpooners are quartered with the officers, eat at the captain's table after the other officers have finished, and receive considerable respect.
Whaling is dangerous for all aboard, especially those posted to watch for whales in the masthead, the highest point on the ship. While the view can be awe-inspiring on a beautiful day, merely climbing to the masthead is dangerous. Nor is this perch on a southern whaler, such as the Pequod, a protected "crow's nest" as one might find on a ship in northern waters. It is an open perch with bars for holding on but no protection. When rough weather hits, the hapless sailor on masthead watch must fend for himself.
penem . . . lactantem; ex lege . . . meritoque Latin, "a penis that enters the female that suckles from breasts; from the law of nature with justice and merit." The narrator quotes this scholarly definition of a mammal for the purpose of ironic humor. He thinks a whale is a fish either way.
abridged condensed, shortened but keeping the main contents.
hustings a deliberative assembly; here, politics, a political campaign.
progeny descendants, offspring.
abstemious characterized by abstinence.
buckler a small, round shield held by hand or worn on the arm.