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CHAPTER 74: THE SPERM WHALE'S HEAD-CONTRASTED VIEW
Ishmael now takes you on a tour of the two great heads hanging from the Pequod. Both the head of the sperm whale and that of the right whale are enormous; to Ishmael the sperm whale's head is the more dignified. Both have eyes on either side of the head, making them unable to see anything directly in front of them. Both have ears so tiny they can barely be found. Ishmael imagines entering the two heads to show the differences between them: the right whale contains no valuable spermaceti, no ivory teeth; the sperm whale has no bone blinds (used by the whale to strain food and by humans in women's clothing) and no tongue. Becoming jokingly philosophical, Ishmael says the sperm whale is a calm, indifferent animal, a platonian; the right whale is marked by suffering endured, a stoic.
CHAPTER 76: THE BATTERING-RAM
Ishmael returns to the sperm whale's head to speak about its power as a battering ram-an important point, for if readers don't believe in that power, they will never believe a whale can sink a ship. The mighty head is like an enormous wall, cushioned with a spongy, blubber-like material that can repel any harpoon. Pushed forward with all the whale's strength this head could dig a passage through Panama, and could certainly sink a ship.
One portion of the sperm whale's head is the junk, a great store of oil. Another portion, the case, Ishmael renames "the Heidelburgh Tun," after a huge wine cask in Heidelberg, Germany. It contains the spermaceti, the valuable oil that gives the whale its name. When the whale is alive, this oil is liquid; after the whale's death it crystallizes.
To get at the spermaceti, you have to tilt the whale's head on its side and cut into it. Tashtego, the harpooner, takes on this job, climbing out on the yardarm then jumping down to land on the top of the head that hangs half in the ocean. Using his spade, he cuts into the whale and with a bucket he draws out the oil, which is then transferred into large tubs.
After several tubs have been filled, an accident happens. Ishmael doesn't know whether to blame it on Tashtego's clumsiness, on the whale's motion, or (a brief echo of Fedallah's devilish influence) on Satan himself. But for whatever reason, Tashtego slips head first into the hole he cut in the whale, and with a terrible roar the entire head drops into the sea. Dimly Ishmael sees a sword-wielding figure dive into the water. Seconds later Queequeg reemerges, carrying Tashtego. He had used his sword to carve holes in the sinking head, removing the harpooner as a midwife might deliver a baby.
NOTE: QUEEQUEG'S HEROISM
Queequeg has saved a man from drowning twice now, and this will not be the last time. His selfless bravery provides an alternative to the narrow selfishness practiced by others of the crew. Note the unusual symbolism. Does Melville mean a person is born again when his or her life is saved? Bear this in mind when you interpret Ishmael's rescue at the end of the novel.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version