Moby Dick: Chapters 50-51

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Chapter 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew   ”
 
Summary
Stubb is impressed by Ahab, who with only one good leg, still gets into the whale boat. It turns out that Ahab had, at his own expense, secretly hired and stowed his own crew, and fitted out a special boat for himself. The other sailors accept Fedallah and the other stowaways because they are good sailors.
 
 
Chapter 51, “The Spirit-Spout”
 
Summary
One moonlit night, Fedallah sees a silvery whale jet ahead and sings out. Usually, whalers don’t give chase at night, but the Pequod sets sail after the spout. The spout is not seen by day, but shows up at night, as if supernaturally beckoning them on. They never catch it, and soon they are rounding the Cape of Good Hope where the seas are rough. Ahab stands on deck, staring straight ahead.
 
 
Analysis Chapters 50 and 51
Melville indulges in what would be called racism today in his making the villainous crew evil Orientals. Fedallah is a Parsee, one of the race of Persian Zoroastrians who fled to India. He is constantly associated with mystery and evil, the kind of being one only sees in nightmares, one of the “ghostly aboriginals” of the earth. This, like other outdated symbolism in Western literature before greater world travel, seems amusing, given the Parsee image of today as respectable and wealthy businessmen of India. In Melville’s time, darker races and non-Christian traditions still held an allure of being forbidden, mysterious, and somewhat wicked. Though Ishmael works through his prejudices with Queequeg, the narrative still contains a fair amount of chauvinism towards exotic peoples and especially towards the whale itself. The whale now represents a benign image for a modern audience, used to hearing whale song and thinking of the whale as an endangered victim. Still, it is the vocabulary Melville had to tell his mythic story at that time.
 
The narrative continues to use images of torment to describe Ahab. He sets out all the sails to drive the ship with maximum speed following the spirit spout, and Ishmael says the ship has two antagonistic influences; it alternately seems ready to ascend straight to heaven by the lift and alternately to be lurching forward to some goal. This is like the war in Ahab: he walks along on one live leg and one dead leg. Sea ravens follow the ship, as though it is uninhabited. The turmoil of the Cape waters mirror Ahab’s conscience.
 
 

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