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Topic: Moby Dick LXI, Whetting the Appetite< Next Oldest | Next Newest >
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David Yeagley Search for posts by this member.
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PostIcon Posted on: May 04 2008,07:55  Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

Chapter LXI  Stubb Kills a Whale

Finally, we have an authentic blood scene, a killing, or, a taste of what the whaling business is all about, what the ship is for, what the sailors are for, and what it feels like to make bloody murder on the high seas.   Melville has been ever so careful with the actual violence of the story, sparing it to the last portions of the narrative.  This is all terribly calculated.

Naturally, Meville picks a most sultry, dead day on which to place the excitement.  The Pequot came across

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a gigantic Sperm Whale lay rolling in the water like the capsized hull of a frigate, his broad, glossy back, of an Ethiopian hue, glistening in the sun's rays like a mirror. But lazily undulating in the trough of the sea, and ever and anon tranquilly spouting his vapory jet, the whale looked like a portly burgher smoking his pipe of a warm afternoon.


Suddenly, everything comes to life, frantically.  (Not to escape, however, a typical Mevillian footnote on the phrenology of the sperm whale, included in most printed editions of Moby Dick).  
Quote
Note: It will be seen in some other place of what a very light substance the entire interior of the Sperm Whale's enormous head consists. Though apparently the most massive, it is by far the most buoyant part about him. So that with ease he elevates it in the air, and invariably does so when going at his utmost speed. Besides, such is the breadth of the upper part of the front of his head, and such the tapering cut-water formation of the lower part, that by obliquely elevating his head, he thereby may be said to transform himself from a bluff-bowed sluggish galliot into a sharp-pointed New York pilot-boat. Partly to show the indispensableness of this act, it may here be stated, that, in the old Dutch fishery, a mop was used to dash the running line with water; in many other ships, a wooden piggin, or bailer, is set apart for that purpose. Your hat, however, is the most convenient.


But the narrative struggles forward...

There are interesting colloquialisms in the speech of Stubb as he commands the lead whale boat.  His harpooner is the American Indian, Tashtego.  Melville calls Tashtego "the Gay-Header."  Is this referring to some peculiar head gear or head dress?  Is this some 19th century slang for the famous war bonnet (which, to my knowledge, Melville never personally encountered)?  Is this a stereotype slang, referring to the strange and/fancy kind of feathers, head bands, or some other notable head dress that Indians wore?  Gay-Header.  Someone who wore something in his hair or on his head--but not a Western hat of any kind.  Something decorative, not immediately functional--as perceived by non-Indians, anyway.  

Then the harpoon, then the ride behind a desperate monster.  The excitment is intense.  Finally, the whale tires, and there is a sub-sea of blood around all.  It is a bit sickening in agony.   Alas, it is the business of whaling.  

To kill, anything, is a major event, actually.  To kill the largest animal on the globe--this is phenomenal.  The effect on the soul of man is telling.  Melville doesn't actually comment much, in this rare and unusually pure action chapter.  The commentary comes later.

I'm  just wondering if the business about the Gay-Header has any unconscious connection with the whole note on the "light substance" of the head of the sperm whale.
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David Yeagley Search for posts by this member.
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PostIcon Posted on: May 07 2008,09:34 Skip to the previous post in this topic.  Ignore posts   QUOTE

An oversight on my part:  Gay Head is the western point of an island off Massachussets.  Martha's Vinyard, to be exact.  This was the western point group of Wampanoags, historically.  Apparently, Tashtego was of this group.  Aquinnah was the Indian name of the group.

I don't know what aquinnah means.  The town, on Martha's Vinyard, was known as Gay Head until 1998.  (Wonder why they changed it!)  Wiki says aquinnah means "land under the hill."
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