Monday, March 21, 2011

Squeeze That Sperm

As I was reading Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick or, The Whale” I couldn’t help but notice how many times he mentions the word sperm. I counted the word sperm two-hundred and seventy-one times, but I could have missed a few; regardless, that’s a lot of sperm.

I understand that “Moby Dick” is a novel about a Sperm Whale, and that part of helping the reader to understand the novel is accurately describing Moby Dick; but it seems to me that Melville’s use of the word sperm is a little excessive. I think that the word sperm is used in “Moby Dick” many times as a pun.

According to Wikipeida, the Sperm Whale’s name is an apocopation of Spermaceti Whale; spermaceti being the waxy, liquid substance that is found inside of the Sperm Whale, which was once believed to be the Sperm Whale’s sperm. This is obviously hilarious, and I think that the Melville realized the Sperm Whale’s humorous potential when he wrote “Moby Dick.”

There is one passage in particular in “Moby Dick” where it’s painfully obvious that Melville isn’t just talking about spermaceti. In chapter 94, A Squeeze of the Hand, Ishmael is describing himself and the crew working the spermaceti out of the Sperm Whale.

Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! All the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed the sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. (Melville, Moby Dick or, The Whale)

As we discussed in class, this play on words is a reference to masturbation. I think that it’s pretty funny and I appreciate Melville’s sense of humor. If I were to write a novel about Sperm Whales I don’t think I could resist making a few jokes about sperm. I liked reading passages like this one not only because they actually made me chuckle to myself as I was reading them; but they also helped me to relate better with Melville. I, like Melville apparently, am a fan of dirty jokes; and I couldn’t help but think of Melville sitting at his desk writing this passage and chuckling to himself as he wrote it.

As we discussed in class, there could be a deeper meaning within this passage. You could look at this passage from a literal point-of-view and think that it’s a description of the crew partaking in group masturbation. Although you could make a strong argument for that kind of interpretation, I would rather believe that this passage is merely a pun on the word spermaceti.

Clearly it must have been lonely for the men aboard whaling ships back in the 1800’s; much like it must be lonely for soldiers and sailors today when they are on long deployments; however, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe that it is common for soldiers and sailors today to partake in communal masturbation, so I would assume that case would remain the same in the 1800’s. I would imagine; however, that some element of solitary masturbation would exist.

Regardless of how much and what kind of masturbation was taking place on board the Pequod, the fact still remains that there were many puns and dirty jokes throughout the novel. Different arguments could be made concerning how literally these references could be interpreted. In my opinion, I don’t believe that these passages were meant to be taken literally. I believe that they were just comedic relief. They certainly made me laugh.


  1. This post actually made me laugh out loud. I guess I never really thought twice about how many times the word "sperm" was used, but now after reading your post and going back for a quick second glance, I agree with the excessive use of it. This is just another aspect to Melville's character that I think really made for a great book.

  2. I took it as an allegory for sex generally, and not a joke. I don't see the humor in it, except through the eyes of a 21st century juvenile. through the Victorian lense, I think this was a way to talk about sex without actually saying it. it only seems funny to us because we would just come out and say whatever we wanted to say, but this wasn't really proper in the mid 19th century

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