University of Virginia Library

Search this document 




Page 196


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 newstelling
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,


Page 197
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

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 ancles, 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


Page 198
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 chiselled hearthstone, 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 fœtal 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 jaw.

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 fearfnlly 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 erough 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


Page 199
restricted to the ignoble monster primitively pursued in the
North; seated on their hatches, these men will hearken with a
childish fire-side 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


Page 200
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 offered.

One of the wild suggestings 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

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


Page 201
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 whaleman.

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 gleamings.

Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable


Page 202
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


Page 203
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


Page 204
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,


Page 205
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

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


Page 206
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 invulnerable 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


Page 207
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 ill.