Annotations and Commentary on Moby Dick

by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 2018

Last Updated 24 Feb 2018

<-  Previous  |  Next  ->

CHAPTER 68: The Blanket

"Consistence" is clearly an alternate form of "consistency".

Melville assumes that the whale is covered with "skin" and then attempts to determine what this skin is. He concludes that it must be the blubber, even though it is a foot thick and has the consistency of beef (i.e., muscle). The only other candidate is "an infinitely thin, transparent substance ... almost as flexible and soft as satin; that is, previous to being dried, when it not only contracts and thickens, but becomes rather hard and brittle."

However, to present-day zoologists, this "infinitely thin, transparent substance" is in fact the skin, in spite of Melville's claim that "it were simply ridiculous to say, that the proper skin of the tremendous whale is thinner and more tender than the skin of a new-born child." One might as well argue that the whale's eye is not an eye because it is so small in relation to the entire animal.

The isinglass that Melville compares whale skin to is a form of collagen obtained from dried swim bladders of fish.

The integument that Melville later refers to as if synonymous with skin actually consists of the skin (epidermis and dermis) and the blubber and the connective tissue.

The lines on the whale's dermis are (I am guessing) like pores on other mammals' skin. The reference to "other delineations [that] are hieroglyphical" is more to add an air of mystery than to suggest actual hieroglyphs.

The "old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi" would be the sort of petroglyphs found on rock faces in many parts of the United States, rather than similar to the elaborate and formal writing systems of the Egyptians and Mayans.

"[Those] New England rocks on the sea-coast, which Agassiz imagines to bear the marks of violent scraping contact with vast floating icebergs" refers a theory first proposed by geologist Louis Agassiz, and apparently still controversial in Melville's time, hence the "imagines".

A surtout is a frock coat.

Hyperborea is a legendary land dating back to Classical times, and seems to have been north of whatever the known lands were at the time of its reference. The sun supposedly shines there twenty-four hours a day, the latter explaining why it is often placed in the Arctic. Hence the reference to the "shuddering, icy seas of the North" as "Hyperborean".

Saying "cold-blooded, lungless fish" is a bit redundant, because pretty much all fish are cold-blooded and lungless. However, Melville is specifically contrasting them with "the whale [which] has lungs and warm blood," but that many people thought of as a fish. Consider that everyone says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but Jonah 1:17 says, "Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."

And to say that "corporeal warmth is as indispensable [to whales] as it is to man" reinforces that whales are more like men than like fish--which is a necessary aspect of the characterization of Moby Dick.

"[When] seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber." This seems unlikely, since dead bodies are floating horizontally, but I suppose it is possible.

"[The] blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer." The is not true: humans have a body temperature of 98.6°F, while whales have a body temperature of 96°F.

"the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness." No annotation--I just like the image.

"Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own." It was believed by some (including apparently Goethe) at the time that the temperature in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome never varied. This is not true.

CHAPTER 69: The Funeral

"The vast white headless phantom floats further and further from the ship, and every rod that it so floats, what seem square roods of sharks and cubic roods of fowls, augment the murderous din." A rod equals 5.5 feet; a rood equals 7 or 8 yards, or occasionally a rod. (It is also a unit of area, equaling 0.25 acre, but clearly "square roods" and "cubic roods" implies a unit of length.) One can understand why birds are measured in cubic units, but one would think sharks would be also. One can only suppose that the entire volume of birds is visible to the sailors, but only the layer of sharks at the layer.

The "infinite perspectives" are a reference to the idea of a vanishing point, where parallel lines appear to meet at infinity.

"The sea-vultures all in pious mourning, the air-sharks all punctiliously in black or speckled." Obviously these are European or American vultures, since white is the color of mourning in the Orient.

To ween is to imagine or suppose. Peradventure (as an adverb) means perhaps or possibly. So "I ween, if peradventure he had needed it" means "I suppose, if perhaps he had needed it."

Melville presents the sharks and vultures as offering no help to the whale in life, but attending its funeral, and then compares this to the human habit of attending the funerals of those we have ignored or mistreated in order to seem pious. And although the sharks and vultures are there to feed upon the whale, the human funeral-goers also expect to be fed, though not on the corpse. This, then, is the "horrible vultureism of earth."

Melville describes how the waves against a whale's floating corpse are sometimes misinterpreted as breakers against shoals and rocks, and recorded as such. Then all ships avoid that area--based entirely on a mistaken belief--and "there's ... the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There's orthodoxy!" Thus Melville sees religion.

"There are other ghosts than the Cock-Lane one, and far deeper men than Doctor Johnson who believe in them." The Cock-Lane ghost supposed haunted an apartment near St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1762. A commission including lexicographer Samuel Johnson concluded it was a fraud.

CHAPTER 70: The Sphynx

Ishmael refers to the cutting into the whale for the beheading as in a "subterraneous manner" but he does not mean "under the earth." He means "hidden," as is indicated by the further description: "without so much as getting one single peep into the ever-contracting gash thus made,"

A Dutch barn in the United States is a very different barn from a Dutch barn in the United Kingdom, which is called a hay barrack in the United States. Surviving Dutch barns are rare nowadays, but suffice it to say that it would be difficult to weigh any sort of barn in jewelers' scales.

Holofernes was a general under Nebuchadnezzar who besieged Bethulia. Judith, a Hebrew widow, entered his camp and seduced him. Afterwards, she beheaded him and returned to Bethulia with the head; the Hebrews then defeated his army. The story appears in the Book of Judith in the Apocrypha. When Melville refers to Judith's "girdle", he means her belt, not an undergarment.

The "universal yellow lotus" referred to is not the American yellow lotus, but the yellow (or golden) Tibetan Buddhist lotus flower, which signifies total enlightenment and the Buddha.

A sphynx (or sphinx) is any mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, but the Sphynx is the Great Sphynx of Giza near the Pyramids. A Greek sphynx also has the wings of a bird and is usually female, while the Egyptian sphynx is usually male, hence Ahab's "though ungarnished with a beard." In particular, the Great Sphynx has a beard. (Generally now this is spelled "sphinx" rather than "sphynx".)

In Hermetism, the Four Powers of the Sphinx are "to Know, to Will. to Dare, and to Keep Silent." Hence Ahab's closing phrase, "not one syllable is thine!"

"Three points on the starboard bow" would be 33.75° toward starboard from the bow. There are 32 points to the 360-degree compass.

"Would that St. Paul would come along that way, and to my breezelessness bring his breeze!" Though St. Paul was shipwrecked due to contrary and violent winds on his voyage to Rome, there is no indication in Acts 27-28 that he was responsible for them.

CHAPTER 71: The Jeroboam's Story

Jeroboam was the first king of the (northern) Kingdom of Israel after it broke away from the (southern) Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century B.C.E. To solidify his power in the north, he erected two golden calves to be worshipped. His story is related in I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles.

The "signals" seem to be flags, but whether each ship has an individual flag, or used a combination of a standard "alphabet" of flags is not clear.

Mayhew is a very conscientious captain, resisting the temptation to rationalize what in the isolation of the ocean would have been a much-desired visit to the Pequod.

Why is the Jeroboam's sailor's yellow hair "redundant"?

"A long-skirted, cabalistically-cut coat of a faded walnut tinge enveloped him; the overlapping sleeves of which were rolled up on his wrists." This would be a coat resembling those traditonally worn by wizards, made most famous in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of FANTASIA. The cabala/kaballah/... is a form of mysticism. (There are 24 different ways to spell "cabala". In general the initial 'C' is used by Christians, 'K' by Jews, and 'Q' by occultists.)

"Scaramouch" is "a roguish clown character of the Italian commedia dell'arte."

The "Neskyeuna Shakers" should be the "Niskayuna Shakers". They are also known as the Watervliet Shakers due to renaming of the various towns near Albany, New York, in the late 19th century.

"[In] their cracked, secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by the way of a trap-door, announcing the speedy opening of the seventh vial, which he carried in his vest-pocket; but, which, instead of containing gunpowder, was supposed to be charged with laudanum." Again, Melville shows a disdain for organized religions, connecting fake spiritualism to the Shakers. Revelation 15:7 says, " And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever." Not surprisingly, the Bible does not describe the contents as gunpowder, which was invented in China in the 9th century and did not reach Europe until the 13th. Laudanum was first conceived in the 16th century.

A freshet is "the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow, or a rush of fresh water into the sea."

The "archangel Gabriel" is not listed as an archangel in the Old Testament, but is in the New Testament, where he has a much more important role. However, his identification as the trumpeter is not Biblical but dates back only to about 1465 in Byzantine culture, and not until John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) in English.

[The] archangel forthwith opened all his seals and vials--devoting the ship and all hands to unconditional perdition...." The New Testament book of Revelation speaks of seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials, the latter filled with the wrath of God.

"... the fevers, yellow and bilious..." Yellow fever is well known; "bilious fever" is an obsolete term that was applied to any fever that also involved vomiting and or diarrhea. It was applied to a wide range of diseases which are now identified by their own names.

The main-royal mast-head is the highest section of the tallest mast.

CHAPTER 72: The Monkey-Rope

A monkey-rope, as will become clear, is a safety rope attached to a sailor who is working somewhere over the ship's side.

"Queequeg figured in the Highland costume--a shirt and socks..." A long shirt could easily remind one of a kilt, and the socks worn are much more noticeable with a kilt (or long shirt) than with trousers, so Ishmael's calling this outfit "the Highland costume" is understandable.

"You have seen Italian organ-boys holding a dancing-ape by a long cord." Such sights were common in New York until 1935, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned the barrel organs altogether. Monkeys were not commonly seen elsewhere.

"[And] should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honour demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake." If the shipboard one of the pair felt he could not save himself if he let his shipmate die, the reasoning probably went, he would put forth the maximum effort to save him. And indeed, in a footnote Melville says, "The monkey-rope is found in all whalers; but it was only in the Pequod that the monkey and his holder were ever tied together. This improvement upon the original usage was introduced by no less a man than Stubb, in order to afford the imperilled harpooneer the strongest possible guarantee for the faithfulness and vigilance of his monkey-rope holder."

"So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us." Conjoined twins were then called "Siamese twins" (and often still are) because the first truly famous ones were from Siam (Thailand). Chang and Eng Bunker were born in 1811 and toured as a curiosity from 1829 through 1839, including some time with P. T. Barnum.

Ishmael's musings on how during this operation he lost some of his individuality and free will, and further that this was true of all human endeavors and interactions. The "interregnum in Providence" would be a period when normal government (by God) is suspended, which is the only way Ishmael can see that he might be killed by another's misfortune, "for [Providence's] even-handed equity never could have so gross an injustice."

A kannakin (or canakin) is a small can or cup. Melville later uses the spelling "canakin", proving that spelling was not entirely regularized, even by the middle of the 19th century.

Ginger has been though for centuries to have therapeutic properties, including reducing the nausea of seasickness. Calomel is mercurous chloride and was used as a purgative and laxative in the United States until the 1860s, in spite of being toxic. Jalap is a cathartic drug.

"Ginger-jub" is a word coined by Melville.

Grog was a mixture of water or weak beer, lemon or lime juice, and rum, commonly drunk by sailors.

CHAPTER 73: Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk

The sharks "thirstily drinking at every new gash, as the eager Israelites did at the new bursting fountains that poured from the smitten rock" is a reference to Exodus 17:1-7, where the Israelites in Rephidim had no water; Moses struck a rock and water came out of it, and then rename the placed both Massah and Meribah.

I suspect this superstition of the head of a Sperm Whale on the starboard side and that of a Right Whale on the larboard side protecting a ship from capsizing is something Melville made up.

Gamboge is a "partially transparent deep saffron to mustard yellow pigment." The "gamboge ghost of a Fedallah" is a reference to his skin color.

The origin of the expression "cock and bull" is not known. The attribution to the name of two travelers' inns in England has no basis in fact; the speculation is that it derives from Aesop's talking animals.

Oakum is tarred fiber gotten by unraveling and picking at old rope and used for caulking wooden ships. Picking oakum was a task traditionally found in workhouses and prisons. Stubb thinks Fedallah wants to stuff oakum in the toes of his boots because, as the Devil, he would have round hooves rather than long feet.

Stubb seems to think a soul is no more nor no less valuable than a silver watch. (He doesn't even compare it to a gold watch.)

Skylarking is passing time by playing tricks or practicla jokes.

The flag-ship is the ship of the commander in a naval flotilla. Stubb's story about the Devil boarding a flag-ship, asking for "John" and giving him the Asiatic cholera, does not make much sense--one imagines there would be several people on a ship named John. Nor is there a point to the story.

There were two major Asiatic cholera pandemics in the 19th century before Melville wrote Moby Dick): one from 1817 to 1824, and one from 1839 to 1856 (so still in progress at the time of writing). These killed millions of people, so the disease was quite terrifying.

I have no idea what the reference to "Three Spaniards? Adventures of those three bloody-minded soladoes?" means. This may be a reference to some then-popular novel which has since sunk into obscurity. "Soldadoes" is an attempt to form the plural of a Spanish word ("soldado") using English rules. The word should be "soldados".

Oughts are zeroes. The word is rarely used today, but there was a suggestion that the decade 2001-2010 should be called the "Oughties".

The expression of a very large number as a "1" followed by many zeroes is common in mathematics, and in fact a "google" is defined as a "1" followed by a hundred zeroes. This is a smaller number than Fedallah's purported age, since I am sure there were more than a hundred hoops in the hold.

The orlop is the lowest deck of a ship.

Double-darbies are handcuffs. Darbies consist of a double ring of iron, so "double-darbies" is probably redundant. The word "darbies" is more common now in British writing than in American.

A bond is a contract.

Beelzebub, as noted before, is another name for the Devil.

Stubb says that he is going to "make a grab into [Beelzebub's] pocket for his tail, take it to the capstan, and give him such a wrenching and heaving, that his tail will come short off at the stump--do you see; and then, I rather guess when he finds himself docked in that queer fashion, he'll sneak off without the poor satisfaction of feeling his tail between his legs." One suspects that Stubb had a different appendage in mind for this operation, particularly when he says he will "sell it for an ox whip"--that part of a bull was often made into a whip.

"That parmaceti" is the sperm whale, from a mangling of the word "spermaceti".

"So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right." John Locke (1632-1704) was a famous British empiricist ("all knowledge comes from senses"). Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) agreed that "all knowledge begins in experience" but also said that the mind provided "a priori concepts." Melville's self-education must have been quite thorough to allow him to use these two as opposing examples.

Men from Lapland were considered by sailors to be warlocks, so "Laplandish speculations" would be speculations about the Devil.

CHAPTER 74: The Sperm Whale's Head--Contrasted View

Melville makes several observations about the whale's eye which are obvious once he makes them, but have likely never occurred to the reader beforehand, such as the small size relative to the head, and the fact that the whale's vision is restricted to only side views.

"Moreover, while in most other animals that I can now think of, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale's eyes, effectually divided as they are ... must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts." This may be true of most mammals, but not so much of birs or fish. In specific, horses, bats, rabbits, most small birds, most lizards, and most fish do not have binocular vision.

Given the "monocular" vision of the whale, Melville speculates that, while humans can only concentrate on a single object as seen with both eyes, it might be possible for a "whale's brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man's, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction..." I have no idea if anyone has figured out a way to test this.

Melville says that this would be "as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid." That may not be possible, but there are people who can write, simultaneously, different sentences with each hand.

"Herschel's great telescope" refers to Sir William Herschel, who starting building large telescopes in 1774 and through them discovered Uranus. His largest (built in 1789) had a 50-inch diameter primary mirror and a 40-foot focal length and the first night he used it he discovered a new moon of Saturn, and another within a month.

"Kentucky Mammoth Cave" is the longest known cave system in the world, and is now the main feature of Mammoth Cave National Park.

A wight in Melville's time was a living or sentient creature. It has recently been used in fantasy literature to represent undead or wraith-like creatures, which will certainly confuse future readers of Melville.

A jib-boom is a spar to extend the length of a bowsprit, which in turn is a spar extending forward from the prow.

Melville describes "some sulky whale, floating there suspended, with his prodigious jaw, some fifteen feet long, hanging straight down at right-angles with his body, for all the world like a ship's jib-boom. This whale is not dead; he is only dispirited; out of sorts, perhaps; hypochondriac; and so supine..." It is not clear what constitutes supine versus prone for a whale. In humans, "supine" is lying on one's back (face up), while "prone" is lying on one's stomach (face down). I would think that a whale could only be prone, not supine.

"There are generally forty-two teeth in all; in old whales, much worn down, but undecayed; nor filled after our artificial fashion." This is yet more Melville humor; would anyone think that a whale's teeth would have fillings.

CHAPTER 75: The Right Whale's Head--Contrasted View

A "galliot-toed shoe" would be one with a toe shaped like a galliot, which is variously defined as a "small, swift galley used in the Mediterranean" or a "long, narrow light-draft Dutch merchant sailing ship." Presumably Melville would have been more familiar with the first.

"... these two F-shaped spoutholes, you would take the whole head for an enormous bass-viol, and these spiracles, the apertures in its sounding-board..." Spiracles are blowholes. The sounding board of a bass-viol would be the front panel, which has two ſ-shaped ∫-shaped holes. A bass-viol is either a viola de gamba (halfway between a violin and a cello) or a double bass.

I can find no reference to a "strange, crested, comb-like incrustation on the top of the mass--this green, barnacled thing, which the Greenlanders call the 'crown,' and the Southern fishers the 'bonnet' of the Right Whale" other than in Moby Dick.

Ishmael suggests that the Right Whale's hare-lip arose because, "Probably the mother during an important interval was sailing down the Peruvian coast, when earthquakes caused the beach to gape." A hare-lip is "a congenitally divided lip." It was believed by many that things seen by the mother during pregnancy can influence the development of the fetus. For example, pregnant women would never risk going to a freak show at a circus, or even to a zoo. (This belief inspired the opening sequence of the film THE ELEPHANT MAN.)

Mackinaw (also known as Mackinac) is an island in northern Michigan. The Native Americans of that region built huts of arched poles covered with bark, rushes, or hides and called wigwams. The word is from languages spoken in New England because the building style extended that far east.

You cannot tell a whale's age from the baleen, as Ishmael suggests, but apparently the earplug forms one layer a year and so can be used (presummably after the whale is dead, however).

The "voyager in Purchas" is not someone in a place called Purchas, but someone relating a travelogue in a volume of reports by travelers to foreign countries collected by Samuel Purchas in the early 17th century.

A busk is a stay or stiffening strip for a corset.

Queen Anne's time would have been 1702 to 1714.

A farthingale was a framework or pad worn under a skirt to extend and shape the hip line.

The "great Haarlem organ [with] a thousand pipes" would be the organ in Grote Kerk (Sint-Bavokerk) in Haarlem, known as the Christiaan Müller organ). It was built in the 1730s, and was at the time the largest organ in the world. I cannot find out how many pipes it actually has.

The Stoics aimed to avoid harmful emotions by bending their wills to that of "Nature", or the world of the senses, while Platonists postulate a realm beyond that of the world of the senses. Spinoza, as a rationalist, believed knowledge came through logic rather than through the senses, hence was more a Platonist than a Stoic.

CHAPTER 76: The Battering-Ram

The "nonce" is in the case the one particular time.

An Indiaman was a large merchant ship engaged in trade with India.

Tow is short broken fibers from hemp, flax, or jute.

They are "lung-celled honeycombs" because the individual cells contain air and, like lungs, inflate and deflate.

The "Isthmus of Darien" is an older name for the isthmus of Panama. It is mentioned in John Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" where he famously errs in putting Cortez (instead of Balboa) on it to be the first Spaniard to see the Pacific.

Salamander giants are mythical, rather than actual giant salamanders.

The Project Gutenberg edition refers to "the goddess's veil at Lais," but that appears to be a typo for "the goddessess's veil at Sais." The latter is drawn from Friedrich Schiller's poem, "The Veiled Statue at Sais".

CHAPTER 77: The Great Heidelburgh Tun

The Great Heidelburgh Tun is a large wine vat in Heidelberg Castle, the fourth of its name. The current one was built in 1751 (so was the one Melville was referencing) and has a capacity of 219,000 liters. It has rarely been used as a wine barrel. Mark Twain also talked about it in A Tramp Abroad.

The word "quoin" is used in printing and in artillery in the sense of a wedge, possibly even a "right-angled" one such as Ishmael describes, but it seems to be a highly specialized usage. (The only dictionary I found to cite it was The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Its most common use is a term is in architecture, where is a not a wedge.

"Tendinous" means related to tendons, or sinewy.

The case is so-called because it holds the spermaceti in a single compartment. The junk also contains spermaceti, but in compartments separated by cartilage, and so many whalers considered it useless--"junk".

A tierce is 42 gallons.

The Rhenish valleys would be the valleys of the Rhine River.

A pelisse is a long cloak with fur trimming.

CHAPTER 78: Cistern and Buckets

A block is a pulley, so I assume that a "single-sheaved block" is a pulley that takes a single rope through/around it.

Melville describes him as seeming like "some Turkish Muezzin calling the good people to prayers from the top of a tower." One wonders now why he chose "Turkish" rather than "Arabian" or some other ethnic description, but in Melville's time all of that area was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Constantinople (Turkey).

A twin reciprocating bucket would be a device where when one [full] bucket is pulled up, the other [empty] one is lowered. The mechanism could, for example, involved interlocking gears on two axles, one for each bucket, with the ropes wound such that lowering one raises the other.

"[T]he enormous mass dropped into the sea, like Niagara's Table-Rock into the whirlpool": Table-Rock was a shelf of rock attached to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It first appeared in the 18th century, and was used a tourist look-out point. In 1818, a piece of the rock fell off, as well as in 1828 and 2829. In July 1850, just as Melville was writing Moby-Dick, a third of it fell off. After further collapses in 1853, 1876, and 1897, the rest was blasted away in 1935.

A boarding-sword is probably what we envision as a pirate sword--a curved single-edged sword about two feet long.

"Queequeg with his keen sword had made side lunges near its bottom, so as to scuttle a large hole there; then dropping his sword, had thrust his long arm far inwards and upwards, and so hauled out poor Tash by the head. He averred, that upon first thrusting in for him, a leg was presented; but well knowing that that was not as it ought to be, and might occasion great trouble;--he had thrust back the leg, and by a dexterous heave and toss, had wrought a somerset upon the Indian; so that with the next trial, he came forth in the good old way--head foremost. As for the great head itself, that was doing as well as could be expected. And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, in the teeth, too, of the most untoward and apparently hopeless impediments; which is a lesson by no means to be forgotten. Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing." Except for the cutting, this is a classic description of how a midwife delivers a breech birth.

"Pperadventure" is an archaic word meaning "perhaps".

"We thought the tissued, infiltrated head of the Sperm Whale, was the lightest and most corky part about him; and yet thou makest it sink in an element of a far greater specific gravity than itself." Melville's explanation is that the spermaceti is the lightest part, so when that is removed it will sink. However, the spermaceti has been replaced by air, so the head is even lighter. (Consider a pot partially filled with water, floating on water. If you remove the water--the lightest part--the pot does not sink; if anything, it rides higher.)

"Sanctum sanctorum" is Latin for "Holy of Holies".

The Ohio honey-hunter is a reference to men who were intentionally embalmed in honey. Mellified men were considered medicinal in ancient Chinese pharmacology; they reportedly would begin the process even before death by adopting a diet consisting of only honey. Others, such as the Emperor Justinian and (possibly) Alexander the Great, were embalmed in honey, combined with myrrh and other ingredients.

According to legend, when Plato was a baby, a swarm of bees built a honeycomb in his mouth, hence his "honey head." Melville also talked about believing in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Idealism as "falling into Plato's honey-head."

CHAPTER 79: The Prairie

A physiognomist was someone who is (supposedly) able to judge character from facial characteristics. A phrenologist was someone who is (supposedly) able to judge character and mental abilities from the shape and size of the cranium. Physiognomy and phrenology were at one time considered valid sciences; they are no longer.

Johann Kaspar Lavater was a famous physiognomist of the 18th century. Franz Joseph Gall was a famous phrenologist of the late 18th and early 19th century. "The Pantheon" could refer to the ancient Pantheon in Rome or the French Republican Panthéon in Paris. The former is better known, but the latter has a much more obvious dome.

Johann Spurzheim was a phrenologist of the early 19th century.

Phidias was a Greek sculptor of the 5th century B.C.E. His statue of Zeus (equivalent to the Roman Jupiter, or Iuppiter, genitive Iovis, or Jove) at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Jolly-boats were the smallest boats on a ship and used to ferry people to and from the larger ship.

To pull someone's nose was apparently not just a metaphorical thing; various texts seem to indicate that a man (always a man) might on occasion walk up to another man and pull his nose as a challenge or insult.

A beadle is a lower-ranking church official; I am not sure what a royal beadle would be or why he would be seated on a throne.

The traditional pictures of Shakespeare do indeed show a very high forehead, made even more pronounced by a pattern of baldness that retains a full hairline, just one that runs across the top of his head. Philip Melanchthon was a 16th century theologian whose portraits show a similarly high forehead, though his hairline is slightly forward of where Shakespeare's is.

"Pyramidical silence," I presume, is another way of expressing "the silence of the tomb."

The Orient World was not what we think of as the Orient, but rather the area of the Eastern Roman Empire, including Egypt.

"Child-magian" is Melville's way of saying that the beliefs of the mages (magi) were child-like, but whether he means innocent, simple, or just plain ignorant is unclear.

I doubt the Nile crocodile was deified because it had no tongue. For starters, the crocodile does have a tongue, though it is attached to the bottom of its mouth. (The alligator's is not, by the way, so the alligator can stick its tongue out, while the crocodile cannot.) In addition, the Egyptians also deified the cat, which most certainly has a tongue.

May Day was one of the four major ancient Gaelic holidays, and hills ("high places") have been important in many early religions. I am not sure what the "egotistical sky" refers to.

Jean-François Champollion decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics in the early 19th century with the help of the Rosetta Stone.

Sir William Jones was the first to convince people of the existence of a common root for Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin and, even further back, Gothic, Celtic, and Persian.

Ishmael was "unlettered" only in physiognomy; he has clearly had a fair amount of education.

"Chaldee" is an incorrect term, introduced by Jerome, for the Chaldean language. The Chaldeans first spoke a dialect of Akkadian, and then later Aramaic. (The biblical books of Daniel and Ezra use the latter language.)

CHAPTER 80: The Nut

Melville does not mean that the sperm whale's facial features physically resemble those of a Sphinx, but that they are enigmatic in the way a Sphinx is supposed to be.

The fact that a circle cannot be squared is because pi is transcendental, and Melville is saying that the whale's brain is so well hidden in the skull that using the shape of the skull to "calculate" intelligence is impossible. However. Melville's description of the "geometry" of the skull is proof of nothing so much as that a picture (or diagram) would be worth a thousand words.

The "amplified fortifications of Quebec" refers to Quebec City, rather than the province as a whole. Quebec City had been fortified since before the Seven Years' war, but additional fortifications, in the form of the Citadelle of Quebec, were added in 1820 (after Americans attacked it during the War of 1812), and hence were still fresh in the minds of Americans.

The Project Gutenberg text says, "The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world," but the Penguin renders this, "The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false bow to the common world." There is some debate on which Melville meant, but to my mind, the term "false bow" is too specifically nautical to be applied to "all things that are mighty."

"This man had no self-esteem, and no veneration. And by those negations, considered along with the affirmative fact of his prodigious bulk and power, you can best form to yourself the truest, though not the most exhilarating conception of what the most exalted potency is." Is Melville saying that power is more potent than wisdom, or what?

Melville's reference to "a foreign friend" sounds very sophisticated and high-class, until he continues on to explain that his friend was using human bones to decorate his canoe.

"Basso-relievo" is what we now call "bas relief"

That German scientists actually thought the vertebrae were undeveloped skulls seems unlikely, but, hey, German scientists have come up with far stranger and pernicious anatomical theories.

. "I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world" is a line reminiscent of (and worthy of) Walt Whitman. When Melville was writing Moby Dick, Whitman had not yet published Leaves of Grass, but he had had several poems published in the Brooklyn Eagle. Melville lived in New York from 1846 through 1850 before he wrote Moby Dick.

It is not entirely clear that "the wonderful comparative smallness of [the whale's] brain proper is more than compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord." True, they are both part of the nervous system, but we now realize that the various parts of the brain have different functions, and the spinal cord even more so, so an excess of one will not replace a lack of the other.

CHAPTER 81: The Pequod Meets The Virgin

The ship is actually named the Jungfrau, but by translating it as "The Virgin" Melville is repeating the error of the team of translators of the King James version of the Bible, and translating "young woman" as "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The Hebrew word is "almah", which means primarily "young woman", but given the cultural mores of the time, it had a secondary meaning as "virgin".

"Yarman" is just Stubb's way of pronouncing "German".

A lamp-feeder is something like a watering can with a long spout that makes it possible to fill hanging oil lamps.

There was "not a single flying-fish yet captured to supply the deficiency," but that is probably hyperbole, since while there is undoubtedly some oil in flying-fish, they are not normally harvested for their oil.

The "Leviathan lamp-feeders" is a poetic term for whales, being giant providers of oil.

A "pod" is the term for a small herd of whales.

Paregoric is camphorated tincture of opium and is considered a cure for diarrhea, which is clearly implied by the "strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble."

To yaw is to twist or oscillate around a vertical axis.

"As an overladen Indiaman bearing down the Hindostan coast with a deck load of frightened horses, careens, buries, rolls, and wallows on her way; so did this old whale heave his aged bulk ..." There is a definite imitation here of the similes of Homer and Virgil and Dante here. "Hindostan" is an alternate spelling of "Hindustan", which in this case must apply to the entire Indian subcontinent, since the various smaller regions it often refers to have no sea coasts.

A hogshead is 63 gallons of wine, or 64 gallons of beer, or more generally (as in this case) a large cask. One suspects Stubb was engaging in hyperbole, especially as he follows it up with exaggerated complaints such as, "Who's that been dropping an anchor overboard--we don't budge an inch--we're becalmed. Halloo, here's grass growing in the boat's bottom--and by the Lord, the mast there's budding."

The "suds" refers to the sea foaming because of the whales' passage.

Slap-jacks are pancakes; quahogs are clams. So "baked clams and muffins" seems only half correct.

It is not clear precisely what "pull for your duff" literally means, though in context it is evident what the phrase means.

A "sog" (and its variant, "sogger") is a large heavy bulk or lump; it is a term from the Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and Shropshire dialects.

"Don't ye love sperm?" Whether or not Melville intended this as a double-entendre or not will remain a mystery.

If Derick understood that throwing something out the back of his boat would "accelerat[e] his own [boat] by the momentary impetus of the backward toss," he had an intuitive grasp of Newton's Third Law of Motion (colloquially, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).

A Dutch dogger was a particular form of fishing boat found in the North Sea. "Line-of-battle" is a naval tactic in which all of one's ships are lined up bow to stern so that they can all fire upon the enemy.

The term "red-haired devils" appears to have been in common use, with many cultures around the world seeing people with red-hair as either devils or connected with the Devil.

The spine has 24 articulating vertebrae (and nine fused vertebrae), so Stubb is off by two when he asks, "Are you the man to snap your spine in two-and-twenty pieces ... ?"

The "white-ash breeze" is the breeze created when one rows a boat, though whether it is the air stirred up by the motion of the oars through the air, or the (relative) breeze created as the boat moves forward, is not clear. This is made clear when Melville next writes, "... a crab ...caught the blade of his midship oarsman. While this clumsy lubber was striving to free his white-ash..." "Lubber" may be short for "landlubber" (a person who knows little about the sea or ships), but it also has a dialect meaning on its own of a big, clumsy person.

"Butter-boxes" was a derogatory term applied by the English to Dutch sailors during (and after) the Anglo-Dutch Wars. It may have come about because the Dutch flag of the time had an orange stripe across the top.

"St. Bernard's dogs" were named after Saint Bernard of Menthon, who founded two travelers' hospices in the Alps in the middle of the 11th century. The dogs used to help the monks find lost travelers were Alpine Mastiffs, which began to be called St. Bernards in the middle of the 19th century. About that time, ironically, the breeding population was severely depleted by avalanches, and the remaining dogs were cross-bred with Newfoundlands. The resulting breed was no longer useful as a rescue dog because in the Alps their long fur would freeze and weigh them down. The belief that St. Bernards carried casks of brandy for lost travelers is incorrect; it apparently derives from the painting "Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler" by Edwin Landseer, later made into an engraving by his son Charles.

"This puts me in mind of fastening to an elephant in a tilbury on a plain--makes the wheel-spokes fly, boys, when you fasten to him that way; and there's danger of being pitched out too, when you strike a hill." A tilbury was a light, open, two-wheeled carriage, fairly dangerous even when attached to something more reasonable than an elephant.

Davy Jones is a fictional, almost mythological, character who "presides over all the evil spirits of the deep." There are at least a half a dozen contradictory explanations for his origins.

"... owing to the perpendicular strain from the lead-lined chocks of the boats, whence the three ropes went straight down into the blue..." Chocks are part of a pulley or block, which in turn makes up part of a tackle.

An "eight-day clock" is one which, when the weights are wound up, will run for eight days.

"Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!" This is Job 41:7 and 41:26-29.

"In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes' army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head!" Xerxes was the Persian king who invaded Greece and fought Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. According to Plutarch, when one of Leonidas's soldiers complained that the arrows of the Persians were blotting out the sun, Leonidas replied, "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?" This had changed over the years until it is commonly related as Xerxes claiming that his archers' arrows will blot out the sun, etc., etc. While historians disagree on the actual size of the army, a figure of half a million would probably be as good an estimate as any. Why Melville chooses to shade only half this army is unclear.

"Magnetic wires" would be what we call electrical wires, and a relatively recent invention.

White bears are of course polar bears. Was the latter term not yet in popular use?

Ishmael claims that the whale has "an entire non-valvular structure of the blood-vessels"; this is not true. There are indeed valves and constrictions that can slow down or shut off blood flow to certain areas. The copious bleeding that Ishmael sees must therefore be attributed to some other reason (e.g., perhaps the valves react to temperature changes rather than being able to detect loss of blood due to injury).

"But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all." Again, Melville uses irony to emphasize his point.

At the time of the writing of Moby Dick, no one was really sure of the lifespan of whales, but guessing that a stone lance-head "might have been darted by some Nor' West Indian long before America was discovered" is overstating it by quite a bit. Assuming the events take place around 1850, the whale would have to be at least 375 years old even if it were just shortly before America was discovered. However, there is no reason why some Nor' West Indian or Pacific Islander could not have attacked it in the 19th century.

Melville says, " might with some reason assert that this sinking is caused by an uncommon specific gravity in the fish so sinking, consequent upon this absence of buoyant matter in him. But it is not so." Well, actually, it is. It may not be dependent on the age of the whale, as apparently some believe, but the specific gravity of the whale is precisely what makes it sink or float.

CHAPTER 82: The Honour and Glory of Whaling

The story of the skeleton of the whale that Perseus slew to save Andromeda was also referenced in Chapter 25 ("In one of the mighty triumphs given to a Roman general upon his entering the world's capital, the bones of a whale, brought all the way from the Syrian coast, were the most conspicuous object in the cymballed procession.") See my notes there.

"... this Arkite story" means it comes from the town of Arka in Syria.

"'Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea,'" saith Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use that word itself." Ishmael seems to be referring to Ezekiel 32:2, but the King James version of that says, "... Thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the seas..." which does not exactly support his claim. Still, the notion that the dragon was actually a whale is not entirely without merit.

I assume "Coffin" is a reference back to Peter Coffin.

A griffin is a creature of legend with the body, back legs, and tail of a lion and the head, wings, and fore-legs (talons) of an eagle.

I think that Melville's suggestion that St. George might have been riding a large seal or a sea-horse is not to be taken seriously.

The "fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dragon by name; who being planted before the ark of Israel, his horse's head and both the palms of his hands fell off from him, and only the stump or fishy part of him remained: The Gutenberg edition renders the name as "Dagon", which is the correct spelling. The reference is to I Samuel 5:2-4: "When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon. And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again. And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him."

Traditionally, Dagon is portrayed as a fish from the waist down, and a man from the waist up. This may be due to the name appearing to be related to the Semitic root "dag", meaning "fish". This accounts for the fish and flesh parts, but the fowl remains a mystery.

"Tutelary guardian" is a tautology; "tutelary" means of or relating to a guardian.

"Frocks" here refers to loose outer garments, not girls' dresses. (Consider the phrases "de-frocked clergyman" or "Frock coat".)

Crockett is Davy Crockett. He and Kit Carson were both famous frontiersmen of the first half of the 19th century. (Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody were from much later than Moby-Dick.)

Greek myth did indeed attribute to Hercules the same fate as Jonah: to be swallowed by a whale, remain there three days, and then be spit up alive. Melville is not sure which came first; one suspects it is next to impossible to precisely date the origin of a Greek myth.

"Shaster" is Shasta, "Vishnoo" is Vishnu, and the whale referred is the "Rainbow Fish", a fish as large as a whale.

<-  Previous  |  Next  ->