Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Using Cetology to Understand Ishmael's Initial Reaction to Queequeg

Upon first glance, Cetology seems to be irrelevant, apropos only because the action takes place on a whaling vessel. It does not seem necessary that the reader understand the differences between the types of whales, but still Melville includes this lengthy biology lesson. The chapter at first seems a nuisance and a frustration to the reader, but upon a second reading, the chapter becomes a euphemism or a micro scale version of a macro scale relevant idea.

As he describes each kind of whale in detail, Ishmael insists that each have its own specifications, and that he must describe it to a “T”. He seems desperate to share his knowledge and that his knowledge be important. To Ishmael, it is extremely important to understand nature and its classifications and its every detail. It seems to be a source of comfort to Ishmael to be so knowledgeable. But even more than the knowledge itself, Ishmael takes comfort in the organization and presentation of this knowledge. “It was stated at the outset,” says Ishmael. “that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected” (157). That is to say that Ishmael feels better having laid forth his knowledge and thoughts on the subject and organizing them thus, even though he does not necessarily understand what it all means or how it is altogether relevant to his life upon the ship and his current situation. Ishmael takes pleasure in the actual categorization of the whale, rather than the understanding of the complete science of cetology. The categorizing and defining of whale comforts Ishmael.

This chapter on cetology can be used to understand and color our reading of Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg, or at least how Ishmael deals with their relationship as he gains information. First, all he knows is that Queequeg is a harpooner and he shall be sharing a bed with him. Soon, the landlord explains to Ishmael that Queequeg has been selling human heads from New Zealand. “Depend upon it,landlord,” says Ishmael. “that harpooneer is a dangerous man” (21). It comforts Ishmael, even though he has not met Queequeg yet, to put him in a neat little category. By doing so, Ishmael can reasonably conjecture as to Queequeg’s nature and what to expect when they finally do meet.

As he goes to bed that first night, Ishmael “sat down on the side of the bed, and commenced thinking about this head-peddling harpooneer” (22). Ishmael, being the academic we know he is from the exposition before this, thinks deeply about everything and everyone. He is comforted and pleased while he thinks and categorizes. Knowledge and its organization is his comfort zone. While in an unfamiliar place, facing an unfamiliar and dangerous task, Ishmael keeps himself sane and calm by analyzing any new information he receives just like he always has.

This analysis is evident in his assessment of Queequeg upon meeting him. As Melville describes Queequeg through Ishmael’s eyes, he uses intellectual and categorizing words and phrases such as “what to make of his unearthly complexion” (23), “I concluded” (23) and “at first I knew not what to make of this” (23). Now these phrases themselves may not point to any specific tone, but when combined with the inclusion of anecdotal stories or facts relating to how this new man may be based on his appearance—the new data Ishmael has recovered—the reader can plainly see that Ishmael is interpreting and categorizing these thoughts and observations in an academic and scientific way to make him feel more at ease even if he does not understand everything.

In Cetology, Melville writes, “How shall we define the whale, by his obvious externals, so as conspicuously to label him for all time to come?” (148). This same kind of oversimplification of Queequeg’s appearance and thus his character are present in Ishmael’s initial interaction with Queequeg. Although Ishmael does make the concession that “[i]t’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin” (23), he continues to make assumptions about what Queequeg’s likely temperament is. This, again, is merely to calm himself. It seems that Ishmael cannot help but perform this type of analysis and categorization, a sort of academic idiosyncratic quirk that allows him some form of control over his life and the situations in which he finds himself.


  1. Erika-

    I don't want to sound like a broken record, but like I've said in earlier comments on your blogs, I feel that (as with some of your earlier work) your strength lies with coming up with an interesting idea, but then you struggle with having that idea become muddled in summary rather than strong conclusions. In this case, I'm somewhat intrigued by the idea of connecting Cetology to the concept of comfort for Ishmael and to his relationship to Queequeg, but by the end of your blog I'm still intrigued but not entirely convinced your point of view is really that significant. It's interesting, but I just don't think there's enough here to make that concept compelling. That may be because as the novel continues the role of Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg (and even the character of Ishmael himself), seem to disappear into the background and are thus not as prominent later in the novel as they are earlier, or maybe it's because you have an idea (Ishmael using Cetology as comfort) that, while somewhat interesting, doesn't really seem to lead anywhere more profound, at least for me personally. Either way I think that if you choose to revise this blog it would help you to look not only at the story as it leads up to Cetology, but after it as well, and see how your central idea evolves (and hopefully strengthens) from there.

    I do want to mention that you discuss very weighty texts in very readable terms which is refreshing. Basically, despite the fact that I had issue with some aspects of your content, I thought the flow of this was good.


  2. I agree with Alison about your strengths, and I also agree that you don't go as far as you could here. However, I might be prepared to say that this is your most interesting work yet, simply because of what you almost do. Let me summarize and push it farther.

    You note some characteristics about Ishmael's obsessive academic thinking on whales. Good, but easy enough. Then you use that to *read back* to his analysis of Q., recognizing many of the same charactistics there. Better! Your seeing I. as obsessively academic, with (perhaps) an *anthropological* orientation.

    Why does this matter? I think you've done a decent, if not conclusive job (that might take more examples) of showing that Ishmael is consistently academic, including in his understanding of people. But why do we care? Your disinclination to answer that question is what bothers Alison, and what keeps this interesting beginning from being outstanding work.

    How do you feel about it? How should we respond to it? Should we admire Ishmael, for turning the same critical eye on all things, human and inhuman? Should we be outraged that he picks apart and analyses even the one true object of his affections? You've picked up on something really interesting and important. But that's just a start - now you need to show us why we ought to care.