Summary and Analysis
Ishmael considers assorted depictions of whales in art, disapproving of most but conceding that some are more nearly accurate. Returning to the story, the Pequod comes upon "vast meadows of brit," upon which the right whale feeds. As the ship heads for Java, Daggoo, on watch, spots a great white mass in the distance and cries out that it is the White Whale. It turns out to be a giant squid. Ishmael discusses the strength and usage of the whale line in open boats.
Ishmael is annoyed by the inaccurate manner in which whales and whaling are depicted in art. He recommends "going a whaling" yourself if you seek even "a tolerable idea of his [the whale's] living contour." Of course, that can be a dangerous venture, resulting in one's death, so perhaps it is best to leave it alone. Only a couple of French engravings come close to depicting the whale and whaling scenes accurately, according to Ishmael. He also respects the paintings of an artist he calls Garnery (Louis Garneray, 1783-1857; the mistaken spelling may be intentional, to add authenticity to Ishmael's riff; he claims not to know who the then-famous artist is). He has seen many "lively" examples of "skrimshander" (scrimshaw), intricate carvings made by sailors on whalebones or other surfaces.
Ishmael informs us further of life at sea. He considers the ecology of the ocean as he discusses vast areas of brit, a minute, yellow substance that collectively looks like "fields of ripe and golden wheat." The scene is peaceful enough as the right whales feed on the brit, reminding Ishmael of mowers cutting a meadow. But there is also a terrible violence in the sea. Creatures feed upon each other, and even the great sperm whale is subject to a cruel fate from nature or man. Again Ishmael warns that the ocean is an especially dangerous place for people.
The chapter on the line, or rope, returns to an immediate consideration of the whaling industry. Manila ropes are only two-thirds of an inch thick, but they are amazingly strong, due to their quality and tight weave, and "bear a strain nearly equal to three tons," the narrator tells us. On one end is secured a harpoon. During the hunt, the rope is carried coiled in a tub on the open boat. The lower end is free but can be linked to another boat's line if the whale "sounds" (dives deep underwater); or it can be secured to the boat so that a fleeing whale carries the boat with it. With even a slight error, the line can take a sailor's arm, leg, head, or entire body with it, which foreshadows a key event at the end of the novel.
extant still existing, not extinct.
Vishnu in Hinduism, the second member of the trinity, called "the Preserver."
frigate a fast, medium-sized, sailing warship.
furlong a unit of measure equal to an eighth of a mile or 220 yards.