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Moby-Dick Recap: Chapters 66-76
In which we get ten chapters devoted to chopping up whales
Okay, remember when we killed that whale in last week’s readings? Well, I hope this week you were interested in several more graphic chapters devoted to the following: Queequeg killing as many sharks as possible that have been feeding on the whale (Chapter 66 “The Shark Massacre”), hauling the whale carcass up onto the ship and cutting blubber off of it (Chapter 67 “Cutting In”), and a meditation on the skin of the whale (Chapter 68 “The Blanket”). Then, once the crew has taken everything that contains valuable oil, they behead the whale and throw its carcass overboard for feasting sharks and birds (Chapter 69 “The Funeral”). Oh, did you miss the part where Ishmael said they beheaded the whale? Well, back it up, back it up, it “should not have been omitted that previous to completely stripping the body of the leviathan, he was beheaded” and now we’re going to devote an entire chapter to sawing the head off (Chapter 70 “The Sphynx”).
I’ll admit there were some interesting things happening in these excruciatingly slow and numerous chapters about whale butchering. For example, what do we make of Queequeg, who has been called a savage and other racist things, saying something derogatory against Native Americans at the end of Chapter 66, using a phrase he certainly learned from white sailors? For me, it only makes Queequeg more complex and imperfect, as the best characters often are, and shows the novel has a more deeper engagement with race and racism than most novels of its time.
And what about Ahab in Chapter 70, monologuing at a decapitated whale head? How bonkers. Also, how Shakespearean, for a character that already seems very inspired by King Lear and other mad characters written by the Bard. I also was struck by the description of translucent whale skin and how Ishmael uses it for magnifying texts about whales, adding '“it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may say.” Pleasant might not have been the word I would have personally chosen, but it’s a striking image nevertheless.
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We return to some plot in Chapter 71 “The Jeroboam’s Story.” The Pequod encounters another ship, which has a malignant epidemic on board. Careful not to infect the Pequod, a small boat from the Jeroboam rows over to the ship, while keeping 6 feet of social distancing. Ahab, who no doubt would break all COVID quarantine guidelines for one meager lead about Moby Dick, is all, “I fear not thy epidemic, man, come on board." But the boat refuses, because they’re essentially ruled by this one dude Gabriel, who everyone believes to be a prophet, and he’ll have none of it.
The story in “The Jeroboam’s Story” is basically some more foreshadowing and myth-making about MD himself. Part of the reason the Jeroboam believes Gabriel to be an archangel is that he declared the white whale "no less a being than the Shaker God incarnated” and when, a year later, they encountered Moby Dick, Macey, the ship’s chief mate, ignored Gabriel’s warnings and drove a boat out to attack MD. The whale attacked the boat, throwing Macey in the air to promptly die and drown, while everyone else remained unharmed. Boom—Gabriel is deemed a prophet and runs the whole show. He shrieks from their social distancing boat that Ahab has the same death wish. This guy was definitely giving me strong Elijah-vibes (if you remember that dude from Nantucket, back in Chapter 19, who obtusely warned Ishmael and Queequeg about joining the crew of the Pequod).
After that brief intermission, guess what? We’re doubling back to talking about chopping up this whale again. If you didn’t get your fill of talking about rope back in Chapter 60’s “The Line,” here’s Chapter 72’s “The Monkey-Rope.” At least we finally get some more homoerotic moments between Queequeg and Ishmael in this one. I mean they’re both tied together by a kinky harness, with Queequeg standing high above Ishmael on this whale carcass, while wearing some kind of skirt-like kilt thing, and Ishmael reports that the view is “in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage.” Alright, that’s what I’m talkin’ about, gimme something here, Melville! Also, later on, Stubb is totally that guy who doesn’t respect when someone says they don’t want to drink.
Chapter 73’s title is “Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him.” I found that to be one of the funnier chapter titles so far. I mean, that’s what pretty much goes down. At Ahab’s request, they kill a right whale, even though most ships wouldn’t bother with this type of whale, but Flask thinks that Ahab, at Fedallah’s superstitious insistence, wants to hang a sperm whale's head and right whale's head on each side of the boat because it'll make the Pequod impossible to sink. And yup, he’s right, that’s just what Ahab wants to do.
And then, and THEN—this was really the point where I almost lost it—we have a chapter devoted to each of these heads. They both open with very conversational intros, I can almost picture Ish looking at the camera, first walking over to the sperm whale’s head, smiling and saying, “Here, now, are two great whales, laying their heads together; let us join them, and lay together our own,” and after boring us to tears for ten minutes, strutting over to the larboard side of the ship, while saying, “Crossing the deck, let us now have a good long look at the Right Whale’s head.”
If you think we’re done talking about whale heads after Chapter 74 and 75, we’re not, we’re gonna talk about its forehead a bit in Chapter 76 “The Battering-Ram.” Apparently, sperm whales’ foreheads ares so strong they can use them like battering-rams and Ishmael goes on for a couple paragraphs with evidence, basically, so that when “I shall hereafter detail to you all the specialities and concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster; when I shall show you some of his more inconsiderable braining feats; I trust you will have renounced all ignorant incredulity.”