Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 85 90 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Chapters 85–90

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapters 85–90 of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick | Chapters 85–90 | Summary



Ishmael explains that a whale needs to spout water because it has lungs and can't breathe through its mouth when it is underwater. He is somewhat mystified by what exactly the spout is—water or water vapor—but speculates as to its nature. He concludes that it is made of mist.

In Chapter 86, he "celebrates" the whale's tail, describing its size, texture, and musculature. He calls it strong, beautiful, and charming, so much so that he has an "inability to express it."

Ishmael takes a moment to describe the Pequod's position and some of the geography of the area in Chapter 87. The ship is moving out of the Indian Ocean. Pirates chase the ship but are easily outrun. Sperm whales are sighted and hunted, and one is killed. He explains in Chapter 88 that whales travel in schools, most often made up of one male and many females and young. As the males get old, they leave the school to live alone.

In Chapter 89, he backtracks to something he mentioned in Chapter 87 about waifs and waif-poles. Fast-fish are whales that are connected to the boat or ship, and they belong to whoever has them fastened this way. They are also considered "fast" if they have a "waif"—a little flag stuck in the whale's flesh showing ownership. Loose-fish are whales that can be claimed by anyone. He uses a story about a court case to show that these rules are sometimes hard to interpret. In Chapter 90, he notes that in Britain, any whale captured along the coast belongs to Britain—its head presented to the king and the tail to the queen.


Just as Ishmael praised the sperm whale for its magnificent head, he now gives some attention to the other parts of the whale, again weaving the plot and descriptive and technical chapters together using a combination of imagery and outright references. He begins by describing two of the whale's parts—the spout and the tail—that will be important to understanding the next events in the plot. So, after spending Chapter 85 giving an explanation for the whale's spout and speculating about its exact substance, he uses it as the foundation of a striking image in Chapter 87 when a large group of whales is seen in the distance like a "host of vapory spouts, individually curling up into the air, and beheld through a blending atmosphere of bluish haze ... like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis, descried of a balmy autumnal morning, by some horseman on a height." The spout, once described and discussed, is then used to show readers exactly what it was like to spot a group of whales.

A similar pattern can be seen with regard to the tail. First, Ishmael describes the powerful tail of the sperm whale in Chapter 86. Then in Chapter 87, whale tails play a prominent role in the action: Queequeg steers Starbuck's whaleboat away from a whale whose "colossal flukes were suspended overhead." (The flukes are the two lobes of a whale's tail.) And one whale that comes a little too close for comfort "seemed calmly cooling himself with his own fan-like extremity." This section of the text concludes with the interesting fact that when a whale is killed near Britain, the tail is presented to the queen.

Ishmael also notes that the whale has been known to hurl "entire boats with all their oars and crews into the air" like a juggler. This comment foreshadows the events of Chapter 134 in which Moby Dick attacks the boats of Stubb and Flask with his tail and shatters them.

A few other images in this section bear consideration. In Chapter 87, references to the color white demonstrate Ishmael's continued dislike of this color. The pirate ships chasing them look like "detached white vapors, rising and falling something like the spouts of the whales." (Notice spout imagery again!) And as the whaleboat is dragged along by the harpooned whale, it "tore a white gash in the sea." White signifies danger.

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