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Free Study Guide-Moby Dick by Herman Melville-Free Booknotes Summary
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Chapters 86 - 89


The ship is now moving into the straits of Sunda and heading for the China Sea. In this part of the watery world, whales sometimes gather in schools. Ishmael refers to it as the Grand Armada. These straits are also the favorite haunts of the Malayan tribesmen who stop vessels at the point of their spears and take all their loot away. The Pequod soon sights a large number of whales (sperm whales) and the ship speeds up. From the deck, some seamen spot the ‘savage’ Malayan tribesmen right behind them, in hot pursuit of the ship. However, the Pequod outdistances the Malayan pirates. As they near the whales, orders are given to lower the boat. The whales, which had slowed down, suddenly dash ahead in full speed, while the sailors watch in dismay. However, a short distance away, the whales suddenly seem confused and move around the same region.

Then the boats are lowered and the chase begins. A harpoon shot from Ishmael’s boat pierces a huge whale. The whale with the harpoon on its body takes the boat into the middle of the other whales. The boat manages to escape the wild thrashing of the tails, as they strike many whales. But the crew succeeds in killing only one of the whales.

In the following chapter, Ishmael explains that the large number of whales that the ship had come across are called ‘Schools.’ According to him, there are two types of schools. One of them consists entirely of female whales. A full-grown female whale is 1/3 of the weight of an average male. A male always leads the female school. His job is to keep other young males at bay. However, when this male leader grows older, he leaves the school and swims alone all around the watery world.

The other school, Ishmael says, consists of young male or bull whales. Unlike the females, these young bull whales are energetic and extremely dangerous to be hunted by any whales. When the bull whales become mature, they leave their school and seek the companionship of a herd of female whales. Ishmael explains that the head of both these ‘schools’ is called the Schoolmaster. He teaches the young whales the ways of the sea and how to survive in the watery world.

Sometimes more than one whaling ship is chasing whales in the same region. While chasing a whale, the sailors of one ship, after having harpooned it, often have had to release it because of a storm or some other emergency. Very often, another crew picks up the same fish. Here, the question arises as to whom the whale belongs. Ishmael says that this is a difficult question and many heated arguments have occurred between ships over this question. However, he says that American whale-men have solved the problem by following a very short and unwritten rule: that "A fast-fish belongs to the party fast to it." and, subsequently, "A loose-fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it."

In this context, fast-fish means a fish dead or alive when struck by a harpoon and connected with an unoccupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants.

In the following chapter, the narrator tells the reader about author’s law regarding the possession or ownership of whales. By an English law, when a whale is caught off the coast of England, the King claims the head and the tail goes to the Queen. Ishmael narrates a tale of a group of whalers who chased and captured a whale off the English coast. At the port, the Duke claimed the whale for the royal family. And in spite of the fact that a clergyman pleaded against it, the Duke insisted that it belongs to him. The law too supported him.

In the chapter, heads or tails, Ishmael continues his commentary on the physical description of the grand whale. Referring to the head and the tail of this fish, he says that nothing can be said with certainty about them. The shape of the whale is so queer that it is extremely difficult to say for sure where the head ends and the tail begins. In other words, there is no exact dividing line to say this is where the head ends and the tail begins.


In the chapters, once again the author uses the symbols of whales and the whaling industry to comment on life and the universe. For instance, while talking about the head and the tail of the whales, the writer seems to suggests that just as one cannot say with certainty about where the head ends and the tail begins in a whale, so in life one cannot know things with certainty. In other words, life is so complex and strange that it is impossible to understand everything with absolute certainty.

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