Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 73 80 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 73–80 | Summary

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Summary

As Chapter 73 begins, a sperm whale's head hangs at the side of the ship. Unexpectedly, an order is given to kill a right whale—not the type of whale they are supposed be hunting. It turns out this was Fedallah's suggestion. He has told Captain Ahab that hanging a right whale across from the sperm whale would magically cause the ship to be unable to capsize. Stubb and Flask think Fedallah might be the devil and Ahab has sold his soul to him. Ishmael then describes the sperm whale's head in Chapter 74, followed by the right whale's head in the following chapter. In Chapter 76, he explains how the head shape and position of the sperm whale as it is swimming can cause the whale to act like a battering ram, and in the next chapter he describes the interior of the sperm whale's head, which contains spermaceti oil—a valuable and unique substance.

Getting back to the plot in Chapter 77, Tashtego balances on top of the sperm whale's head, cuts into it, and bails out buckets of the spermaceti oil. This is a dangerous task, and after some time of bailing Tashtego falls into the head, which then breaks loose from the ship and begins to sink. Queequeg dives in to save Tashtego.

In Chapter 79, Ishmael attempts to analyze the sperm whale's head in terms of physiognomy and phrenology, but he admits that he is not really qualified to do so. In the next chapter, he discusses what the whale's skull, brain, and spine say about the creature. He concludes it has a very grand spine, which, of course, surrounds the brain stem, and that its hump makes it "indomitable."

Analysis

These chapters focus on the topic of whale heads. As he describes the sperm whale's head from a variety of different perspectives, Ishmael's tone—his attitude toward the subject—is one of admiration. He says the sperm whale's head has "mathematical symmetry" as well as "character" and "pervading dignity." Even the inside of the sperm whale's head is coated with a "silken pearl-colored membrane" in which is stored the spermaceti oil—a "precious substance" prized by all. In fact, when Tashtego almost dies inside the sperm whale's head, Ishmael suggests that had he indeed died, it would have been "a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber" of the whale. When expanding his description to the mind housed within the sperm whale's head and spinal column, his admiration for the creature's intelligence is expressed by remarks such as that the whale's "great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it."

Between Ishmael's comments on whale heads, a few other important developments are described. Captain Ahab continues to follow Fedallah's advice rather than the stated mission of the Pequod's owners: to hunt whales for profit. Ahab's behavior is so far from what he "should" be doing, according to Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, that Stubb and Flask feel that the idea of Ahab making a deal with the devil (who they think is likely Fedallah) is pretty reasonable. The end of Chapter 73 presents a chilling image of Ahab's and Fedallah's shadows mingling together, suggesting that Ahab is somehow possessed by Fedallah.

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