Though Cetology begins like the boring pages from a zoology book, the reader quickly sees that the narrator is not going for a solid piece of scientific work. Cetology, though a return to the first person, is not written in the voice of Ishmael. The narrator in Cetology explains that there isn’t “real knowledge” when it comes to whales, in fact only one of the writers he mentions, Captain Scoresby, ever was a whaler. Very few of those who wrote about them ever were in contact with whales. The narrator struggles with many issues regarding the whale such as its classification as fish or mammal (which he turns to Biblical means to solve his confusion on the matter). However the one thing the narrator is very avid about is that despite classifications the sperm whale is clearly superior to any other whale. What’s most confusing about Cetology to me is the narrator’s use of definition.
“Next: how shall we define the whale, by his obvious externals, so as conspicuously to label him for all time to come? To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail. There you have him. However contracted, that definition is the result of expanded meditation.”(148).
Despite giving a clean cut definition for whales the narrator goes on to clarify,
“By the above definition of what a whale is, I do by no means exclude from the levianthanic brotherhood any sea creature hitherto identified with the whale by the best informed Nantucketers; nor, on the other hand, link it with any fish hitherto authoritatively regarded as alien.”(148).
Then, after making this allowance to permit what other more informed men call whales, in the side note, the narrator includes,
“I am aware that down to the present time, the fish styled Lamantins and Dugongs (Pig-fish and Sow-fish of the Coffins of Nantucket) are included by many naturalists among the whales. But as these pig-fish are nosey, contemptible set… I deny their credentials as whales.”(148).
Because of all this tom-foolery I believe that Cetology is in whole meant to present the reader with questionable, humorous material in order to show give even more mystique to the creature. The real point is that the narrator holds the sperm whale above all, and that very little is known about their biology in this time. Cetology provides the reader with a mystified slightly mocking version of the whale in general when proceeding further into the novel.
The reader then reaches a long chapter entitled The Whiteness of the Whale which is equal in its double-sidedness to Cetology. The chapter begins by comparing the connotation of splendor that follows whiteness, and then compares it to the whale’s repellence due to its color.
“Nor can it be questioned from what stands on legendary record of this novel horse, that it was his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothed him with divineness; and that this divineness had that in which, though commanding worship, at the same time enforced a certain nameless terror.”(207).
There are also the comparisons of the views of a white man’s skin. “Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own…”(204) juxtaposed with “The Albino is as well made as other men – has no substantive deformity – and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion.”(208). Because of the previous examples of juxtaposition in Cetology it seems that we should also view this as a mockery. I feel that Herman Melville is looking at the idea of beauty due to color, or power because of color as something to be ridiculed. The real reason behind the terror is the majesty and elusiveness of this enormous creature. The color perplexes the author, because he feels it should make it more beautiful yet it is horrible. This is more a critique of color fixations because of the previous mockeries in Cetology.