Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 32 34 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 32–34 | Summary

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Summary

Ishmael takes a break from the story to talk about cetology, the study of whales, explaining difficulties in classifying the creatures and in studying them up close. He rejects the idea that a whale is not a fish, and defines a whale as "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail." Then he explains in great detail his own system for classifying whales. Next, in Chapter 33 he explains the authority structure on a whaling ship. Unlike other ships, whaling ships have an officer known as the specksnyder, who is the chief harpooner. As Captain Ahab is the ultimate authority on ship, he expects complete obedience.

Going back to the plot of the novel in Chapter 34, noon means it is dinnertime on the ship, and Ahab and his mates go to eat. Ishmael remarks that the officers seem bold while on deck, but at dinner they are more humble toward the captain, who sits at the head of the table and serves them, one by one, in silence. After Ahab and his mates eat, the harpooners take their places at the table and also have their dinner.

Analysis

At times in the novel, Ishmael's narrative follows some scientific or technical tangent rather than the action of the plot. It is important to look for the threads that tie these chapters to the main events of the story. Sometimes they provide an introduction to or additional information about plot events, or they develop ideas and themes that appear again and again in the novel. For example, in this section Ishmael uses a discussion of cetology to introduce the idea that those who work with whales up close are well equipped to have opinions on them scientifically, and are thus a class of men set apart from others. This idea that whalemen are special leads into a discussion of how the hierarchy on whaling ships is different from that on other ships. Both Chapters 32 and 33 focus on the exceptional quality of whalemen and how they differ from those who observe or experience whales from afar.

The discussion of the hierarchical nature of authority on board—and in particular, the captain's unquestioned authority—leads into a fascinating illustration of this: the noon meal at which the relationship between Ahab and his officers is clearly displayed. The cook ritualistically announces the meal, and Ahab ritualistically informs his first mate, who informs the second mate, who informs the third mate. At dinner, gloomy Ahab presides over a silent table of obedient and humble mates. It is only after these higher-ranked officers have finished eating that the lower-ranked officers, the harpooners, are allowed to sit and eat.

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