Wednesday, March 14, 2012


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.


  1. Katelyn-
    I think you are absolutely correct in acknowledging that Melville isn’t *actually* trying to do taxonomical work – that is, he doesn’t consider this to be an actual contribution to science. I also agree that this section is meant to be less-than-revealing about the whale, perhaps purposefully muddling (something that I myself wrote on).
    Apart from that, I’m having difficulty grasping what you are claiming. I believe you mean to say that Cetology is meant to mystify the whale even further in the eyes of the reader. Well what does it mean that such a dry, plain rendering of the whale is unable to capture him? Also, I think if you mean to show that the narrator believes the sperm whale to be the superior whale, there are connections to Lewontin’s text that can be made here, regarding economic bias within scientific studies.
    Lastly, I am not sure what parallels you are trying to draw between Cetology and “The Whiteness of the Whale.” What are the previous ‘juxtapositions’ that you are referring to? This could probably use another paragraph to fully tie these two seemingly separate ideas together.

  2. Dean's observations are all good, and important. I, too, am somewhat unclear about what you're trying to prove - although I think the parallels you draw are fine, but more importantly, I think you are grasping at an issue of fundamental importance here.

    It's a *joke*. It's not just a joke, by any means - and jokes can be deadly serious, of course. Humorous thought can still be thought, etc. Still, there's a lot of willful absurdity here. If you're going to work with the humor, though, you want to do it more thoroughly - ask in greater depth, at greater length, with more use of the (humorous) material to demonstrate - rather than speculate - what the humor is aiming it.

    Much of the material at the beginning doesn't serve much of a purpose. By the end, you're finding a purpose - it just would have worked better if you'd been doing that from the start.