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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 95: THE CASSOCK

You now get some of the bawdy humor Melville includes in spots. As the whale is cut up, a strange, conical object is separated, turned inside-out, then stretched and dried so a crewman can wear it for protection as he minces blubber. The object is the whale's penis, and Melville uses religious imagery (the skin becoming an archbishop's robes) to double his joke's impact.

CHAPTER 96: THE TRY-WORKS

The Pequod leaves the sunlit peace described in "A Squeeze of the Hand," and moves into a world of such darkness and fire that it seems to belong to Ahab, although he is not visibly present.

American whalers contain try-works, brick ovens used to melt whale blubber into oil. At nine o'clock at night the work begins. By midnight the ship is licked by flames, and the atmosphere is like that of some pagan ceremony; the Pequod's crew have been turned into laughing savages. Ishmael, standing at the helm to steer the ship, is almost hypnotized by the fire. He has the feeling not of fleeing towards safety, but of fleeing from it. He feels near death. Suddenly he realizes that he has fallen into a nightmare-filled sleep and that he has almost capsized the ship.

NOTE: FIRE AND SUNLIGHT

Ishmael sums up his near-accident by warning, "Look not too long in the face of the fire." And because fire is associated with Ahab, Melville seems to be showing us that Ishmael has turned his back on Ahab's dangerous and unnatural obsession. You saw a clue to this earlier, when Ishmael said he would abandon dreams and theories for the simple pleasure of daily life.

Melville seldom allows you to settle for easy answers to life's problems; indeed, he seems driven to explore life's contradictions. Sunlight is preferable, Ishmael says, but he knows that the sun can't hide what is bad in life. Any fully alive man will feel more woe than joy-though to concentrate too much on that woe will lead to madness. And there's a final contradiction: the Catskill eagle who can plunge into darkness then soar into sunlight; the eagle who even if he never returns from the dark gorge, flies higher than other birds. If, as it seems, that eagle represents Captain Ahab, are Ishmael and Melville saying that despite his doomed, damned quest, Ahab is in many ways a greater man than most of us?



CHAPTER 97: THE LAMP
CHAPTER 98: STOWING DOWN AND CLEARING UP

One of the pleasures of a whaleman's life is that, unlike a merchant seaman, he can enjoy constant light, thanks to the plentiful supply of oil on board ship.

After the whale has been boiled down, his oil-the profit of the voyage-is put into six-barrel casks, which must be securely stored in sea water deep in the ship's hold. (You'll see later that Ahab attempts to ignore even this important rule.) Then the blood-and blubber-stained ship is thoroughly cleaned, only to be dirtied again when the next whale is slaughtered.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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