Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 60–63 | Summary

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Summary

Ishmael describes the whale line, which he calls "magical, sometimes horrible." This line is thin but very strong, and it must be coiled smoothly or else it can be very dangerous. Because the lines are attached to the harpoons when thrown, men on the boats must take great care not to be caught in the line as it unwinds or be pulled overboard and killed.

In Chapter 61, the Pequod is sailing along a quiet stretch of ocean, and Ishmael and the other crewmen are sleepily going about their duties. Suddenly a sperm whale is seen, and everyone once again springs into action. The boats are lowered, the whale disappears, and the men in their boats wait silently for him to reappear. When the whale reappears, Stubb's boat goes after him, and Tashtego hurls his harpoon, finally killing the animal. Ishmael then expresses his opinion in Chapter 62 that harpooners should not have to do anything other than throw the harpoon—not shout and row with the rest. He further explains in Chapter 63 that the crotch mentioned in the previous chapter is a notched stick used to hold the harpoons (of which there are two—called the first and second irons) ready for the harpooner. The two are connected with a line and must be thrown in quick succession.

Analysis

The casual reader may consider Chapter 60 a rather dry discussion of one of the dangers of whaling—the real possibility that one would, in a small boat with several others amid a flurry of activity, be caught in the line (rope) that is attached to the harpoon as it is thrown. But Ishmael tends to see symbolic meaning in the most mundane objects, so he extends his description to the whale line's symbolic meaning: "All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, everpresent perils of life." The whale line, then, is like a noose that can be pulled tight at any moment; Ishmael reminds readers that all people are in danger of dying at any moment—not just whalemen.

Ishmael's narrative style, and the way he weaves the more technical chapters into the plot-heavy chapters, is very clever in this section. Chapter 60 calls the whale line "magical." The next chapter refers back to Chapter 60 when the harpoon is thrown, using this same adjective: "the same moment something went hot and hissing along every one of their wrists. It was the magical line." And the line does seem to have a magical quality here, as it emits a smoke created by friction that mingles with the smoke from Stubb's pipe. Chapter 62 refers back, less subtly, to Chapter 61: "A word concerning an incident in the last chapter." And Chapter 63 refers back to a word written in Chapter 62 that Ishmael feels he did not explain fully: crotch. These small connections help the story flow and reveal how carefully Melville composed his novel.

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