Saturday, March 12, 2011

Whales Are Big

Sometimes words fail to convey the magnitude of things that we want to describe. For instance, the national debt of the United States of America is fourteen trillion, nine-hundred and ninety billion, two-hundred and ninety-five million, two-hundred and ninety-seven thousand, six-hundred and thirty-six hundred dollars and thirty-six cents, as of 1:33 pm on Friday, March 11, 2011. Certainly, that number sounds big; it took half a paragraph to write out in words. You might even say it’s a whale of a debt.

Reading Herman Melville’s novel and listening to him illustrate the colossal size of Moby Dick and other Sperm Whales in his novel “Moby Dick” is a lot like listening to a discussion about the national debt and other national financial matters. You need to slowly read and think about it to fully comprehend it’s size, which is similar to the way you need to read “Moby Dick” in order to understand the magnitude of the whales that Herman Melville is describing.

Throughout Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick,” Melville makes sever attempts to describe the enormousness of Moby Dick (and sperm whales in general) as the reader struggles to grasp his dimensions. In the chapter Cetology, Ishmael unveils his system for classifying and describing whales. He says that the Sperm Wale is “the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect….”

They must not have known about Blue Whales back in 1851, because I just did some research on Wikipedia and it says that the Blue Whale is the “largest animal ever known to have existed.” Regardless, the Sperm Whales that Melville writes about in Moby Dick may not have been the largest animals in the world, but it would certainly take a lot of comprehending to imagine the size of a Sperm Whale for someone who has never seen one in real life.

Throughout the novel, Melville also makes references to arches made out of the jawbones of whales. One such reference in Chapter 3 describes the Spouter-Inn. “Projecting from the further angle of the room stands a dark-looking den-the bar-a rude attempt at a right whale’s head. Be that how it may, there stands the vast arched bone of the whale’s jaw, so wide, a coach might almost drive beneath it.”

This description of the size of a whale’s jaw helps to put the immense size of the whale in perspective. It also enables the reader to appreciate the bravery of the sailors on the Pequod for their willingness to hunt such enormous and dangers animals.

The magnitude of the Sperm Whale has also been observed by the pot John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost.

“There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, on the deep
Stretched like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at his trunk spouts out a sea.”
-Paradise Lost.

I believe that even though this quote implies that whales have gills (which they don’t) does a good job of impressing the size of the whale upon the reader. It compares the whale to a mass of moving land. I believe that is a pretty good analogy; although, I’ve never seen a Sperm Whale in person; judging from the pictures I’ve seen on the internet; I could almost certainly walk on the back of a Sperm Whale.

The descriptions that Melville and Milton have made about whales are quite remarkable. They must be read carefully in order to appreciate the size of these gigantic creatures and to value the courage of the men who hunt such massive animals.


  1. The first couple paragraphs are witty, but they also leave me wondering where you're headed. Without belaboring those paragraphs, let me point out that *one* of the many things the whale stands for in this novel is the state, specifically the American state (at least one extract makes that exact point); thus, I took your first couple paragraphs halfway seriously, even though they were obviously meant at least partially in jest. They didn't go anywhere, though. What's my point? The joke could have been more than a joke - the idea had merit, even if you didn't really intend to do anything with it.

    Minor aside: you're right. They didn't know about blue whales at this point. It's a good observation, and also, arguably, a missed opportunity for slightly more extended research.

    I don't have any other comments, because this doesn't really have a purpose or direction. I like the opening joke/observation fine, and the blue whale is a good observation, but you're not really *doing* anything with the extract you chose, and thus you aren't really doing much with the prompt, either, despite an interesting and amusing start.

  2. I do like the idea of discussing the size of whales. It just seems like this entry never takes off with any useful deductions from attempts to describe the size of whales. However, I feel as though there is so much potential here for taking it up a notch and talking about the implications of attempting to describe something so large as a metaphor. It's just asking to be turned into a metaphor and I'd love to see it done.