In these chapters, Ishmael gives an account of a successful hunt and its immediate aftermath. Spotting a large sperm whale about 100 yards from the boat, the crew springs into action. Stubb's boat makes the kill, and the second mate celebrates with a whale steak for supper. Stubb harasses Fleece, the African-American cook, and prods him into delivering a sermon to sharks who are attacking the whale carcass.
Melville uses idiomatic dialogue to provide character insight in this section of the novel. This is part of a realistic portrayal of a successful whale hunt, but a modern audience may question the effect. It begins with Queequeg, from whom we have not heard much since the ship set sail. Some of the men believe that the giant white squid was an omen of bad luck, but Queequeg takes a practical approach reflecting his considerable experience as a harpooner: "When you see him @'quid,' . . . then you quick see him @'parm whale." He is correct; the sperm whale soon appears.
Stubb is an able seaman but a coarse prankster. After making the kill, he calls for the black cook, Fleece, to prepare a steak in celebration. Nothing that Fleece does seems to be satisfactory. Stubb apparently thinks of himself as quite a wit and superior to Fleece in every way as he summons the chef: "Cook, cook! — where's that old Fleece? . . . cook, you cook! — sail this way, cook!" Stubb complains that the whale steak, though reddish, is too well done and tender; he wants it tough! In addition, he can barely hear himself yell at Fleece because the sharks are making so much noise; he orders Fleece to deliver them a sermon. Fleece speaks in the stereotypical dialect too often assigned to African Americans in the literature of the day. Preaching to the sharks, he says, "Stop dat dam smackin' ob de lips! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill your dam bellies up de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket!"
Perhaps we should remember that it is Stubb doing the harassing, not Ishmael or Melville. However, there are no repercussions for the second mate's abusive badgering. The publication date of the novel was 1851, almost a dozen years before the Emancipation Proclamation, which technically, if not yet effectively, ended slavery in the United States and its territories. The extended scene between Stubb and Fleece probably is supposed to be funny.
The Crotch a notched, perpendicular stick that holds two harpoons for quick accessibility.
audacious bold or daring.
elucidate to make clear, to explain.
unctuous oily, greasy; smug, smoothly pretentious.