Moby Dick
Herman Melville
Contributed by Jerrold Mcmenamin
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Chapter 32–40

Chapter 32: Cetology

“Cetology,” as Ishmael explains, "is the science of whales”. Ishmael attempts to classify whales scientifically in this and subsequent science-centered chapters in his fictional work. He quotes various significant writings on the whale, adding that others might revise this draft of classification system. Ishmael divides whales into different “chapters” in three distinct “books”: the Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo (publishing terminology). In doing so, he shuns the Linnaean classifications of family, genus, and species which were already the standard in Melville’s time.

Chapter 33: The Specksynder

The Specksynder, much like the previous chapter, analyses the whaling industry rather than whales. It begins with trivia about the changing role of the Specksynder (literally meaning: fat-cutter), who used to be chief harpooner and captain. Ishmael then discusses various onboard leadership styles. He emphasizes on the interdependence of whalers for successful hunting and therefore wages begets its own discipline. Ishmael also notes that a whaling ship is less hierarchical than other vessels. Still, many captains indulge in a show off their rank. Ahab does not flaunt his superiority but at times he can be a ruthless tyrant. Ishmael says that it can be hard to see exactly what is remarkable about Ahab: one must “dive ... for it in the deep.”

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table

This chapter describes the ship’s officers having dinner. Ahab presides over the meals, and as expected, they are a rigid affair: No one talks and a strict order of service is enforced. After the officers finish eating, it is the turn of harpooners, who eat heartily, intimidating the cook with their voraciousness. The cabin is Ahab’s territory and it is not a comfortable place for anyone. Ahab is “inaccessible” and “an alien" for most part of the day.

Chapter 35: The Mast Head

The narrator describes his first post on the masthead — the top of the ship’s masts — looking for whales. He takes a brief tour of history of mastheads and their role on whaling ships. Ishmael lists statues, hermits and ancient Egyptians as prior “masthead standers". The masthead in a ship is a place where whalers spend a great deal of time. Ishmael laments its lack of comforts: on a South Sea ship the masthead offers only two small pegs upon which a whaler can stand. Comparing this setup to that of other ships, he notes that they have miniature cabins atop the masts. Ishmael admits that he himself daydreams too much to keep a good watch. He warns the ship captains against hiring “romantic, melancholy and absent-minded young men,” who are likely to miss whales in the vicinity.

Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck (Enter Ahab: Then, all.)

Ahab finally makes an appearance for the first time before his men. He works up his crew by calling out simple questions about their mission, to which the members respond in unison. Then, he puts forth a Spanish gold doubloon, announcing, “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw... he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!” The men are delighted to see this, the harpooners ask if it is Moby Dick that Ahab seeks. The captain then confesses, in response to Starbuck’s query, that it was indeed Moby Dick who ripped off his leg, and he is determined in his quest to hunt the whale down. The men shout together their approval to Ahab's plan. Starbuck, however, protests that he “came here to hunt whales, not his commander’s vengeance". Ahab commences a ritual that keeps the crew together. He orders all of his men to drink from one flagon that gets passed around. Asking the harpooners to cross their lances before him, Ahab holds their weapons and anoints Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo “my three pagan kinsmen there — yon three most honorable gentlemen and noble men". He then makes his men take the iron off the harpoons to use as drinking goblets. They all raise a toast as Ahab proclaims, “God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to its death!”

Chapter 37: Sunset

“Sunset” begins with a stage direction that sets Ahab alone near a window in a melancholic soliloquy. He contemplates that everyone thinks of him as a mad man and agrees that it is true to some extent. He consciously calls himself “demoniac” and “madness maddened". He reveals that it was foretold that he would be dismembered by a whale. He, however, proclaims that he will be both “prophet” and “fulfiller” of Moby Dick’s destiny. Captain Ahab understands and accepts the inequality of the battle, yet, challenges Moby Dick, claiming that the whale cannot avoid his fate. “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” he says.

Chapter 38: Dusk

After Sunset, the chapter 'Dusk' is a monologue by Starbuck. He fears that their expedition will be a failure, yet, he feels inextricably linked to Ahab, compelled to help him to “his impious end". As he hears the revelry coming from the crew’s forecastle, Starbuck laments the doomed voyage and the “latent horror” in life.

Chapter 39: First Night-Watch

“First Night-Watch” is a monologue by Stubb which gives yet another perspective on the voyage. He believes it all to be predestinated and can only laugh and sing a ditty.

Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle

“Midnight, Forecastle” is written like a scene from a play. It introduces sailors from different countries showing off and singing together. They start fighting when a Spanish sailor makes fun of Daggoo. A sudden storm, however, puts an end to their fighting as they get back to their work on the ship. Pip asks the “big white God”, who may be either God or Ahab, to “have mercy on this small black boy".


Cetology appears to be a grand digression in the narrative. It is a way for Ishmael to show off his knowledge and his literary tendencies. The use of publishing terminology, the category names Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo come from the different sizes of books produced by 19th century printers, suggests the arbitrariness of humans to understand and classify the natural world. For Ishmael, the meaning lies not in the final classification but in the act of classifying, which signifies hope and resistance to futility. The classification also suggests that humans, in their imperfection, need such aids to understanding, otherwise, they will be lost in a deep sea of information and phenomena. Ahab's motivation to kill Moby Dick is much more complicated than just taking the revenge for his lost leg. His burning desire to strike at the world’s malevolent forces shows his profound intelligence and philosophical bent of his mind. Ahab is gifted to look for hidden realities beneath superficial appearances, but at the same time, he seems to be deluded and consumed by a kind of madness. Ahab, in his soliloquy, is puzzled whether God is the malevolent agency against which he seeks to strike out. He resembles both Hamlet, in his probing of the metaphysical truths underlying everyday appearances, and Iago, in his absolute rejection of piety and morality and his manipulation of others in pursuit of his goal. Ahab strives to surpass the limits proscribed for human beings by conventional morality and religion.

Beginning with Chapter 36, this section employs stage directions and other devices taken from plays. These elements accentuate the reader’s awareness that the book is becoming more dramatic: conflicts emerge between the characters and Ahab consciously gives a performance to unite and manipulate his crew. There are echoes of Shakespeare, both in style and in specific allusions to his plays. Ahab’s soliloquy imitates Shakespearean cadences and rhythms. Both Ahab and Starbuck are given soliloquy-style monologues in these chapters to plead their case to the audience eloquently.

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