Moby Dick Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Moby Dick: Chapters 74-80

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Chapter 74, “The Sperm Whale’s Head-Contrasted View”
Ishmael describes the head of the sperm whale; it is nobler than the right whale’s head. The sperm whale has two small eyes on either side of its head, unlike the human whose two eyes show a single thing.
Chapter 75, “The Right Whale’s Head-Contrasted View”
The sperm whale looks like a Roman war chariot, where the right whale has a more humorous shape, like a galliot-toed French shoe. The right whale has a hanging lower lip that makes it look like it is sulking.
Chapter 76,“The Battering Ram”
The whale cannot see ahead; it has only a vast forehead, which can be used as a battering ram. In here it stores the precious spermaceti oil, as much as 500 gallons.
Chapter 77, “The Great Heidelburgh Tun”
Once the sperm whale is beheaded, the harpooner begins to empty the “tun” or vat of the head with a spade and bucket.
Chapter 78, “Cistern and Buckets”
As the tun empties, Tashtego falls into the deep vat of oil in the head. Daggoo lowers on a chain trying to rescue him and almost falls into the sea as the head crashes into the water with Tashtego in it. Daggoo holds on to the chain, and Queequeg dives in to save Tashtego, extracting him like a midwife, in a rebirth from the whale head.
Chapter 79, “The Prairie”
Ishmael, like Ahab, tries to read the sperm whale brow, using phrenology, the art of reading character from the bumps on the head. The whale’s forehead displays his great dignity, suggesting the power of Deity more than anything Ishmael has seen in nature.
Chapter 80, “The Nut”
Yet the whale brain is comparatively small to the size of the head and shaped like a human brain. The whale thus shows a false face to the world, and for all his reading of it, Ishmael finds the whale brow a mystery, as Ahab did.
Analysis Chapters 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, and 80
The adventures with the whale head show its intimidating size in comparison to a man’s size; yet the smallness of the brain implies an irresponsible ignorance in charge of a huge body.
Ishmael goes into great detail about the head of the sperm whale and what it tells us about its nature. It has both elasticity in the blubber and power to ram with it, like a “dead, blind wall” (76. 334). He seems to clarify the characteristics of the sperm whale with his phrenological reading, and yet he comes up with contradictory images.
One set of images asserts a sublime and god-like brow. The other set of images connects the whale to a blind malignity. Which is the true whale? Ishmael says, “. . . unless you own the whale you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth. But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter . . . What befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Sais?” (76.335-6)
Neith, the Egyptian goddess at Sais, was both a goddess of domesticity and war. She wove the shrouds of the dead. She is said to have had the face of a lion or snake, so lifting the veil would be risky, revealing her dual nature, the dual nature of life, a vision one must be prepared for in order to survive.
The whale, like the goddess, seems to have the same benign/cruel aspect as nature. Is Ishmael ultimately indicting God for making creation like this, as Ahab does, or does he accept this contradiction in life? The salamander giant is the legendary creature who lives in the element of fire and would be able to withstand the glance of Neith, like the Gorgon’s, whom only heroes can encounter. Ahab went mad at beholding this contradictory truth of the universe, and so will little Pip. Ishmael lifts the veil and survives.
On the one hand, the “mystical brow” has the presence of the Deity; it is sublime. On the other, it is the sublimity of the sphinx and pyramid, full of riddles and silence. The blank forehead does not allow one to see any point or feature. This image connects to the ambiguous whiteness of the whale, and the pyramid connects Moby Dick to Ahab. Both are unfathomable and immovable.
Beneath the vast brow, however, is a much smaller brain and one that looks almost human. The brain is hidden, so the outside and inside of the whale do not match, thus making the phrenological reading difficult.


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