Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 41 42 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 41–42 | Summary

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Summary

Ishmael resumes telling the story. He says that he, as one of the crew, swore an oath to follow Captain Ahab on his "quenchless feud." Then he gives some of the history of the White Whale involving encounters with whaling ships, ending each time in some disaster for the ship and crew—minor injuries, serious injuries, even fatalities. In fact, Moby Dick has grown to have quite a reputation with sailors among whom the stories of the whale became ever more fantastical and filled with superstition. Because of all these stories, many sailors believe that killing the White Whale is impossible.

Ishmael then describes the confrontation between Ahab and Moby Dick that resulted in the loss of Ahab's leg and the development of Ahab's subsequent vindictiveness toward the White Whale as a "monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them." To Ahab, Moby Dick is his sworn enemy, though it's unclear whether Ahab views the whale as representing God or Satan or both.

In Chapter 42, Ishmael explains his reaction to the tales of Moby Dick by saying, "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me." He notes that whiteness can be both a positive and a negative symbol, giving examples. He then speculates about some other aspects of white that make it frightening.

Analysis

This section rounds out the reader's understanding of the situation aboard the Pequod, as the final "main" character—Moby Dick—is introduced in depth. Ishmael may have taken more than 40 chapters to get to this point, but he has finally arrived. He describes how, rumor by rumor and story by story, the whale's reputation grew. The ever-more-elaborate stories stem partly, he notes, from the superstitious nature of sailors. But they are also due to real encounters with Moby Dick and other sperm whales.

It is also important to notice that Ishmael includes himself in his description of the oath-taking and shouting. And even though as an observer and narrator he is somewhat distanced from the rest of the crew, he is still telling a story rich with omens, prophecies, and symbolism, so he is not immune to the mythical nature of Captain Ahab's quest to kill the White Whale. Ishmael's tendency to use spiritual language seems very at home among the "superstitious" sailors. In keeping with this spiritualizing of all things whale, Ishmael reveals that in the early days of whaling, other types of whales were hunted, but not sperm whales; many sailors believed that "although other leviathans might be hopefully pursued, yet to chase and point lances at such an apparition as the Sperm Whale was not for mortal man."

Ishmael's aversion to Moby Dick is not really rational, though he attempts to present it that way: he lists several positive associations of white—innocence, purity, joy, superiority. Yet then he says that white is also associated with frightening things such as white sharks, death shrouds, corpses, ghosts, troubled waters, and snowy, desolate landscapes. White is the absence of color as well as a mixture (scientifically) of all colors, so it makes people think of annihilation, he speculates.

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