Summary and Analysis
Ishmael interrupts his narrative to speak as an advocate for the dignity of the whaling industry and whales. He argues that whaling is a clean and upright profession that brings considerable profit to the economy. Whalers have expanded our understanding of the globe through exploration. The whale is important to world literature. Even kings and queens rely on whale oil for their coronations.
This is the first of more than forty chapters in which Ishmael halts the flow of the narrative to discuss some aspect of cetology (the study of whales), the whaling business, or the whale's reputation. Modern readers might well wonder why he does this. First, Ishmael tells us early on that he is going to sea to learn more of whales and whaling. He hopes to establish this as a worthwhile topic; that is why he refers to biblical sources such as the Book of Job or the Book of Jonah, here and throughout the novel, which add to the whale's reputation. Further enhancing the status of whales, he alludes to Alfred the Great (849-99 a.d, king of Wessex 871-99) who ended the Danish conquests in England; promoted English culture; and, Ishmael argues, wrote about whales. In addition, Melville grounds his story in reality by his sections on cetology. He wants to create at least the illusion of fact in the novel, and he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that these events could occur.
Finally, the reader should notice that the narrator is having a good time. For the most part, these chapters on cetology are not dull, dry, tedious accounts. The tone is light-hearted and sometimes even silly. In the chapter "Postscript," Ishmael argues that the whaling industry provides royalty with "coronation stuff" because the oil used to anoint a new king or queen probably is whale oil: "Think of that, ye loyal Britons!" avers the very American Ishmael.
Ishmael argues like a formal debater or a lawyer speaking to a jury, but his goal is to entertain as well as to inform. We might remember that Melville's audience in the 1850s consisted of more patient readers; they almost certainly had longer attention spans than we have today. A good book might last the winter, and Ishmael's wit would provide a welcomed break.
superfluous excessive, more than is needed.
anoint to put oil on in a ceremony of consecration.