Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What to do with Chapter 32

On first glance one may assume that Chapter 32: Cetology is a surprising detour from the path of the narrative. It can seem kind of dry and unnecessary to the narrative as a whole. However, this is far from the case, Melville uses this chapter as a point to revert back to when the barrage of his imagery becomes too much to comprehend. Although Moby Dick is a work of fiction Melville uses this and subsequent science based chapters to give us a concrete foundation from which to build from. The chapter Cetology legitimizes not only Ishmael’s knowledge regarding whales but legitimizes the novel as a whole. It grounds the reader and makes the depiction of the whale more real. The chapter acts to give a root of non-fiction to the fiction of the novel.
One function that the chapter Cetology has in analyzing and understanding the novel on a whole is to establish Ishmael as a knowledgeable whaler. When we are first presented with Ishmael he is portrayed as a dark and dismal individual. He is infatuated with violence and death and seems to be seeking a means of assisted suicide when joining the crew of the Pequod. Initially one could easily believe that Ishmael has deliberately chosen a dangerous trade that he was inept in in order to harm himself. We learn later that Ishmael has some experience with sailing but we can still assume that he is ignorant to the art of whaling and the knowledge it takes to succeed at it. When we arrive at Chapter 32 we see that Ishmael is not only an intelligent individual but he is also quite educated in the art of whaling. This chapter establishes Ishmael as and intelligent individual and legitimizes his narrative.  Initially one could claim that these were the memoirs of a depressed self-destructive individual and it would be permissible to be skeptical of the text. Ishmael separates his knowledge in to not one but three distinct books, the Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo, in order to further prove how well read he is on the science of whaling. With this chapter we see that he is not such a depressed character but on the contrary an erudite whaler. This chapter validates Ishmael’s account of the tale of the Pequod and makes the text and the narrator easier to believe. 
When we arrive at chapters like “The Whiteness of the Whale” at times we can become lost in the elaborate web of metaphors and similes that Melville presents us with. We become torn between what the whale represents to us, what the whale represents to the characters and what Melville wants the whale to represent. At times we can see numerous examples of metaphors for the whale all in the same passage as we do here in this excerpt:
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows -- a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink?” (Melville 212)
When reading this and passages like it we wonder what Melville wants us to think. Does the whale represent colorless, emptiness, immensity or the full meaning of the universe? Even Ishmael begins to question what the whale means to him so it is impossible for the reader not to. We begin to lose touch with the foundation of the novel when we are presented with passages like this and that is why Melville included the chapter on Cetology, to give us a groundwork from which to work from.            
            That is another major and more vital function of the chapter Cetology and chapters like it: to give the reader a base of non-fiction from which they can begin their journey through the fictional world that Melville creates. Although the book is entitled Moby- Dick we see very little of the whale in the novel at all. When we do receive actual glimpses of the beast we do not get any understanding of its objectives, emotions or point of view.  What we do get is the feelings and perspective of Moby-Dick’s human characters about the whale. We see what the whale is supposed to represent to the world and what it means to the characters through the characters. Over time in the novel the whale can begin to become more of a myth or an intangible entity rather than an actual central character. The symbolism and metaphors surrounding the whale can become muddled up and it becomes hard to find a veritable point in the text.  Melville wants to take the reader on a journey that involves the intangible, the poetic and the abstract but he wants to also give us a nonfiction foundation from which to expand on. Moby-Dick is a novel about personal perspective, contemplation and symbolism but is still a novel about whaling. Melville is extremely concerned about giving different evidence for what the whale represents, to every character and the reader, but he also wants us to build that connotation from a factual basis.                        
            Thus, Melville included this chapter; he wanted to layer his novel in level after level of depth and mystery but he need to base those layers in something real and tangible. Melville’s portrayal of the whale, even though it is eloquent and masterful can also be at times somewhat bewildering. When you begin to recall the chapter Cetology the idea of the whale becomes more realistic, tangible, and relatable; this adds even more depth to the novel. Much of the information in the chapter comes from the real life experiences of Melville who was also a sailor, which simply legitimizes the narrative further. For those reasons when reading the chapter Cetology and chapters like it they should be used as a grounding point from which to begin our fictional journey and legitimize the novel. 


  1. Although this is a good description of the chapter, its elements, and what we are to gather from it, I think this essay is missing something vital. I think its great ground work for a solid argument, however I think a good idea for you would be to pick one of your observations and take it a little further. For instance, I really enjoyed the observation that you made that although the book is called Moby Dick, the whale is actually in the novel very seldom. What does this mean? I really liked this observation:
    "We see what the whale is supposed to represent to the world and what it means to the characters through the characters. Over time in the novel the whale can begin to become more of a myth or an intangible entity rather than an actual central character."
    I think an essay about what to do with a chapter might not serve you best with material, but if you could perhaps connect this chapter, and your observation on Moby Dick as a type of Rorschach test for the character's and their view on life,with other instances throughout the novel, I think that would make a more interesting essay and also not box you in as much as far as material goes. In general this essay has some solid observations and ideas, I just think that you need to take them to the next level and extend them throughout the novel.

  2. Mia argues that something is missing: I think that something is probably a stronger, more detailed relationship with the text itself.

    I mean, you say things about Cetology which intuitively make sense, and are interesting. First, you argue that the chapter helps establish Ishmael's credibility; second, you argue that it kind of establishes a physical or ordinary level upon which to built all kinds of metaphysical structures. Both make sense, and are even related - but by doing both, you manage to spend a lot of time not engaging with the text itself.

    To put it another way - if you're arguing that cetology grounds us, in such a way as to make the Whiteness of the Whale more credible, I'd like to see a more detailed analysis of the text trying to prove that. I like it, I tend to agree, and I see how all the parts fit together - but if this is an argument fundamentally about either Ishmael as character or Ishmael as narrator, you need to do more with what Ishmael actually says.