Summary and Analysis
Ishmael discusses the honorable profession of whaling and certain aspects of cetology. He is pleased, if a bit humbled, to belong to the "emblazoned" fraternity of whalers, whose honor is supported by history and legend. Ishmael defends the historical possibility of Jonah's story, discusses an aspect of the whale hunt, and considers two important parts of the whale.
Once more, Ishmael interrupts his narrative to discuss aspects of whaling and cetology that he feels are important to an understanding of the quest of the Pequod. Modern readers might initially disagree. For Ishmael, however, there is a significant pride in being a whaling seaman. He wants his readers to be aware that great men such as Hercules, Jonah, and even the Hindu god Vishnu are associated with whales; in addition, he is fairly certain that St. George himself actually fought a whale rather than a dragon. Those who discount the Jonah story because of the difficulty of Jonah's even passing, in one piece, to the belly of the whale, let alone surviving there, miss the point, according to Ishmael. Jonah could have been stashed away in some part of the whale's mouth! The reader should notice a tone of levity in all this. Melville is having a good time with his preposterous approach.
Pitchpoling is a serious matter, especially for a wounded whale. If the harpooned whale does not "sound" (dive), but runs along the surface of the sea, a hunter can inflict considerable damage with a pitchpole. This is a steel and wood (pine) spear about twelve feet in length, longer and lighter than a harpoon, easier to maneuver, and connected to a long, light rope called a "warp," which can be hauled back quickly after each darting. The hunter strikes the spear into the whale, again and again, each wound further weakening the leviathan until it dies.
The spout and the tail especially interest Ishmael, who sees mystery and grandeur in them. The spout, which looks like a fountain, is a puzzle because Ishmael can't figure out exactly how it works. It seems to have to do with breathing, because there are no gills or nose, he says, and the whale's mouth is several feet under the surface. The tail provides five functions: It is a fin for progressing; a mace in battle; a center for the sense of touch; a playful percussion instrument as it powerfully slaps the water; and a practical tool to help the whale in diving. Ishmael concludes that there is much in nature that must remain a mystery but many aspects that can be studied to reveal function.
whist a card game, a forerunner of bridge.
mosque a Muslim temple or place of worship.
inveterate settled in a habit or practice, habitual.
vermicelli pasta similar to spaghetti but in thinner strings.
warp and woof in weaving, the threads running lengthwise and crossways on the loom; the foundation upon which something is built.
mace a heavy medieval war club.