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Chapter 41: Moby Dick.


I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest;
my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more
did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A
wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud
seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous
monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of
violence and revenge.

For some time past, though at intervals only, the unaccompanied,
secluded White Whale had haunted those uncivilized seas mostly
frequented by the Sperm Whale fishermen. But not all of them knew of his
existence; only a few of them, comparatively, had knowingly seen him;
while the number who as yet had actually and knowingly given battle to
him, was small indeed. For, owing to the large number of whale-cruisers;
the disorderly way they were sprinkled over the entire watery
circumference, many of them adventurously pushing their quest along
solitary latitudes, so as seldom or never for a whole twelvemonth or
more on a stretch, to encounter a single news-telling sail of any sort;
the inordinate length of each separate voyage; the irregularity of the
times of sailing from home; all these, with other circumstances, direct
and indirect, long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide
whaling-fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby
Dick. It was hardly to be doubted, that several vessels reported to have
encountered, at such or such a time, or on such or such a meridian,
a Sperm Whale of uncommon magnitude and malignity, which whale, after
doing great mischief to his assailants, had completely escaped them; to
some minds it was not an unfair presumption, I say, that the whale in
question must have been no other than Moby Dick. Yet as of late the
Sperm Whale fishery had been marked by various and not unfrequent
instances of great ferocity, cunning, and malice in the monster
attacked; therefore it was, that those who by accident ignorantly gave
battle to Moby Dick; such hunters, perhaps, for the most part, were
content to ascribe the peculiar terror he bred, more, as it were, to
the perils of the Sperm Whale fishery at large, than to the individual
cause. In that way, mostly, the disastrous encounter between Ahab and
the whale had hitherto been popularly regarded.

And as for those who, previously hearing of the White Whale, by chance
caught sight of him; in the beginning of the thing they had every one of
them, almost, as boldly and fearlessly lowered for him, as for any other
whale of that species. But at length, such calamities did ensue in these
assaults--not restricted to sprained wrists and ankles, broken limbs, or
devouring amputations--but fatal to the last degree of fatality; those
repeated disastrous repulses, all accumulating and piling their terrors
upon Moby Dick; those things had gone far to shake the fortitude of many
brave hunters, to whom the story of the White Whale had eventually come.

Nor did wild rumors of all sorts fail to exaggerate, and still the more
horrify the true histories of these deadly encounters. For not only do
fabulous rumors naturally grow out of the very body of all surprising
terrible events,--as the smitten tree gives birth to its fungi; but, in
maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound,
wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to. And as the
sea surpasses the land in this matter, so the whale fishery surpasses
every other sort of maritime life, in the wonderfulness and fearfulness
of the rumors which sometimes circulate there. For not only are whalemen
as a body unexempt from that ignorance and superstitiousness hereditary
to all sailors; but of all sailors, they are by all odds the most
directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing
in the sea; face to face they not only eye its greatest marvels, but,
hand to jaw, give battle to them. Alone, in such remotest waters, that
though you sailed a thousand miles, and passed a thousand shores, you
would not come to any chiseled hearth-stone, or aught hospitable beneath
that part of the sun; in such latitudes and longitudes, pursuing too
such a calling as he does, the whaleman is wrapped by influences all
tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.

No wonder, then, that ever gathering volume from the mere transit over
the widest watery spaces, the outblown rumors of the White Whale did
in the end incorporate with themselves all manner of morbid hints,
and half-formed foetal suggestions of supernatural agencies, which
eventually invested Moby Dick with new terrors unborrowed from anything
that visibly appears. So that in many cases such a panic did he finally
strike, that few who by those rumors, at least, had heard of the White
Whale, few of those hunters were willing to encounter the perils of his

But there were still other and more vital practical influences at work.
Not even at the present day has the original prestige of the Sperm
Whale, as fearfully distinguished from all other species of the
leviathan, died out of the minds of the whalemen as a body. There are
those this day among them, who, though intelligent and courageous
enough in offering battle to the Greenland or Right whale, would
perhaps--either from professional inexperience, or incompetency, or
timidity, decline a contest with the Sperm Whale; at any rate, there are
plenty of whalemen, especially among those whaling nations not sailing
under the American flag, who have never hostilely encountered the Sperm
Whale, but whose sole knowledge of the leviathan is restricted to
the ignoble monster primitively pursued in the North; seated on their
hatches, these men will hearken with a childish fireside interest
and awe, to the wild, strange tales of Southern whaling. Nor is the
pre-eminent tremendousness of the great Sperm Whale anywhere more
feelingly comprehended, than on board of those prows which stem him.

And as if the now tested reality of his might had in former
legendary times thrown its shadow before it; we find some book
naturalists--Olassen and Povelson--declaring the Sperm Whale not only to
be a consternation to every other creature in the sea, but also to be so
incredibly ferocious as continually to be athirst for human blood. Nor
even down to so late a time as Cuvier's, were these or almost similar
impressions effaced. For in his Natural History, the Baron himself
affirms that at sight of the Sperm Whale, all fish (sharks included) are
"struck with the most lively terrors," and "often in the precipitancy of
their flight dash themselves against the rocks with such violence as to
cause instantaneous death." And however the general experiences in the
fishery may amend such reports as these; yet in their full terribleness,
even to the bloodthirsty item of Povelson, the superstitious belief in
them is, in some vicissitudes of their vocation, revived in the minds of
the hunters.

So that overawed by the rumors and portents concerning him, not a few of
the fishermen recalled, in reference to Moby Dick, the earlier days
of the Sperm Whale fishery, when it was oftentimes hard to induce long
practised Right whalemen to embark in the perils of this new and daring
warfare; such men protesting that although other leviathans might be
hopefully pursued, yet to chase and point lance at such an apparition
as the Sperm Whale was not for mortal man. That to attempt it, would
be inevitably to be torn into a quick eternity. On this head, there are
some remarkable documents that may be consulted.

Nevertheless, some there were, who even in the face of these things
were ready to give chase to Moby Dick; and a still greater number who,
chancing only to hear of him distantly and vaguely, without the
specific details of any certain calamity, and without superstitious
accompaniments, were sufficiently hardy not to flee from the battle if

One of the wild suggestions referred to, as at last coming to be linked
with the White Whale in the minds of the superstitiously inclined,
was the unearthly conceit that Moby Dick was ubiquitous; that he had
actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same
instant of time.

Nor, credulous as such minds must have been, was this conceit altogether
without some faint show of superstitious probability. For as the secrets
of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to
the most erudite research; so the hidden ways of the Sperm Whale
when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his
pursuers; and from time to time have originated the most curious and
contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning the
mystic modes whereby, after sounding to a great depth, he transports
himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points.

It is a thing well known to both American and English whale-ships, and
as well a thing placed upon authoritative record years ago by Scoresby,
that some whales have been captured far north in the Pacific, in whose
bodies have been found the barbs of harpoons darted in the Greenland
seas. Nor is it to be gainsaid, that in some of these instances it has
been declared that the interval of time between the two assaults could
not have exceeded very many days. Hence, by inference, it has been
believed by some whalemen, that the Nor' West Passage, so long a problem
to man, was never a problem to the whale. So that here, in the real
living experience of living men, the prodigies related in old times of
the inland Strello mountain in Portugal (near whose top there was said
to be a lake in which the wrecks of ships floated up to the surface);
and that still more wonderful story of the Arethusa fountain near
Syracuse (whose waters were believed to have come from the Holy Land
by an underground passage); these fabulous narrations are almost fully
equalled by the realities of the whalemen.

Forced into familiarity, then, with such prodigies as these; and knowing
that after repeated, intrepid assaults, the White Whale had escaped
alive; it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should
go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only
ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that
though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still
swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick
blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in
unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would
once more be seen.

But even stripped of these supernatural surmisings, there was enough in
the earthly make and incontestable character of the monster to strike
the imagination with unwonted power. For, it was not so much his
uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other sperm whales,
but, as was elsewhere thrown out--a peculiar snow-white wrinkled
forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump. These were his prominent
features; the tokens whereby, even in the limitless, uncharted seas, he
revealed his identity, at a long distance, to those who knew him.

The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with
the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive
appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by
his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue
sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden

Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his
deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror,
as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific
accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. More than
all, his treacherous retreats struck more of dismay than perhaps aught
else. For, when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every
apparent symptom of alarm, he had several times been known to turn
round suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to
splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship.

Already several fatalities had attended his chase. But though similar
disasters, however little bruited ashore, were by no means unusual
in the fishery; yet, in most instances, such seemed the White Whale's
infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death
that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an
unintelligent agent.

Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of
his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed
boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the
white curds of the whale's direful wrath into the serene, exasperating
sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.

His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the
eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had
dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking
with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale.
That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his
sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's
leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no
hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice.
Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal
encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale,
all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came
to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his
intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before
him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which
some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with
half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been
from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe
one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced
in their statue devil;--Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them;
but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he
pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and
torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice
in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle
demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly
personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon
the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt
by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a
mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at
the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the
monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate,
corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he
probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more.
Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long
months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one
hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape;
then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another;
and so interfusing, made him mad. That it was only then, on the homeward
voyage, after the encounter, that the final monomania seized him, seems
all but certain from the fact that, at intervals during the passage,
he was a raving lunatic; and, though unlimbed of a leg, yet such vital
strength yet lurked in his Egyptian chest, and was moreover intensified
by his delirium, that his mates were forced to lace him fast, even
there, as he sailed, raving in his hammock. In a strait-jacket, he swung
to the mad rockings of the gales. And, when running into more sufferable
latitudes, the ship, with mild stun'sails spread, floated across the
tranquil tropics, and, to all appearances, the old man's delirium seemed
left behind him with the Cape Horn swells, and he came forth from his
dark den into the blessed light and air; even then, when he bore that
firm, collected front, however pale, and issued his calm orders once
again; and his mates thanked God the direful madness was now gone; even
then, Ahab, in his hidden self, raved on. Human madness is oftentimes a
cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but
become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab's full lunacy
subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson,
when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the
Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of
Ahab's broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not
one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living
agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may
stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it,
and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far
from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a
thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon
any one reasonable object.

This is much; yet Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted.
But vain to popularize profundities, and all truth is profound. Winding
far down from within the very heart of this spiked Hotel de Cluny where
we here stand--however grand and wonderful, now quit it;--and take your
way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those vast Roman halls of Thermes;
where far beneath the fantastic towers of man's upper earth, his root
of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state; an antique
buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsoes! So with a broken
throne, the great gods mock that captive king; so like a Caryatid, he
patient sits, upholding on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of
ages. Wind ye down there, ye prouder, sadder souls! question that proud,
sad king! A family likeness! aye, he did beget ye, ye young exiled
royalties; and from your grim sire only will the old State-secret come.

Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely: all my means
are sane, my motive and my object mad. Yet without power to kill, or
change, or shun the fact; he likewise knew that to mankind he did long
dissemble; in some sort, did still. But that thing of his dissembling
was only subject to his perceptibility, not to his will determinate.
Nevertheless, so well did he succeed in that dissembling, that when
with ivory leg he stepped ashore at last, no Nantucketer thought him
otherwise than but naturally grieved, and that to the quick, with the
terrible casualty which had overtaken him.

The report of his undeniable delirium at sea was likewise popularly
ascribed to a kindred cause. And so too, all the added moodiness which
always afterwards, to the very day of sailing in the Pequod on the
present voyage, sat brooding on his brow. Nor is it so very unlikely,
that far from distrusting his fitness for another whaling voyage, on
account of such dark symptoms, the calculating people of that prudent
isle were inclined to harbor the conceit, that for those very reasons he
was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full
of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales. Gnawed within and
scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable
idea; such an one, could he be found, would seem the very man to dart
his iron and lift his lance against the most appalling of all brutes.
Or, if for any reason thought to be corporeally incapacitated for that,
yet such an one would seem superlatively competent to cheer and howl on
his underlings to the attack. But be all this as it may, certain it is,
that with the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in
him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only
and all-engrossing object of hunting the White Whale. Had any one of his
old acquaintances on shore but half dreamed of what was lurking in him
then, how soon would their aghast and righteous souls have wrenched the
ship from such a fiendish man! They were bent on profitable cruises, the
profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an
audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.

Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a
Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made
up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals--morally enfeebled
also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in
Starbuck, the invunerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in
Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered,
seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him
to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded
to the old man's ire--by what evil magic their souls were possessed,
that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much
their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be--what the White
Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in
some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon
of the seas of life,--all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than
Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one
tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his
pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow
of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the
abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to
encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest