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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 86: THE TAIL

Other poets may sing about delicate objects like birds' plumage, but Ishmael wants to celebrate something more solid: the whale's tail. On its upper surface alone it measures fifty feet square, and it's built like the old Roman walls in three layers for added strength. The tail is powerful, yet graceful; it never wriggles foolishly, and is the whale's main weapon against man as well as a plaything. When the whale is about to submerge, the tail stands straight up to provide one of the grandest sights in nature.

NOTE: THE TAIL

Ishmael continues to build a view of the whale far more complex than Ahab's. You might want to take a closer look at his description of the submerging tail:

So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; in that of Isaiah, the archangels.

To Ishmael, the whale can seem what it seems to Ahab, devilish, something out of Dante (the 14th-century author of The Divine Comedy). But if you are in a different mood, the whale can seem heavenly. After all his research, all his thought, Ishmael is unable to make a final judgment-and that may be Melville's point. "I know him not and never will," says Ishmael, and his statement holds true not just for whales but for much else.

CHAPTER 87: THE GRAND ARMADA

The Pequod sails into the straits of Sunda, home to Malay pirates but also known to be a major cruising ground for sperm whales.

On a sparkling day the Pequod's sailors see a two or three mile semicircle of whale spouts hurrying through the straits ahead of them. The harpooners cheer as their ship begins its chase. But when Ahab turns around he sees they are being followed by a Malay pirate ship.

Ahab angrily paces the deck, one enemy behind him, his greatest enemy somewhere ahead. But the Pequod outruns the pirates and soon catches up with the whale herd. The whaleboats are launched. The great herd of whales seems like a flock of sheep, some swimming aimlessly, others staying timidly still despite the danger. When Queequeg harpoons one of the creatures, it pulls the boat with it through crowds of whales so thick Queequeg can only poke at them in hopes of moving them out of the way.

Then, after so much hurry, so much violence, the lone whaleboat finds itself in the very center of the herd.



NOTE: THE ENCHANTED CALM OF THE GRAND ARMADA

This section is, many critics agree, one of the loveliest in all of Moby-Dick. As the boat sails into "that enchanted calm that lurks at the heart of every commotion," whales swim around them in concentric circles, filling the horizon. Nature here seems both beautiful and orderly, the complete opposite of the view taken by Ahab. And, says Ishmael, the scene has a counterpart in all of us. Earlier in the book, he spoke of each man containing a peaceful Tahiti within him; now he says that each man possesses a center as calm as the center of this great herd.

But the calm doesn't last. A whale pushes into the herd; he's been harpooned, and, worse, he still carries a cutting spade attached to him so that with each flailing he stabs his fellow whales. The herd begins to panic, and Ishmael's boat barely escapes being crushed. And after all this effort, only one whale is killed by the Pequod.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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