“There’s hogsheads of sperm ahead, Mr. Stubb, and that’s what ye came for. (Pull my boys!) Sperm, sperm’s the play!” -Moby Dick
In high school and college, I was never assigned to read Moby Dick. I’ve always wondered about that. How could it be that I was never forced to read such a famous book? Well, I have a theory now: it’s possible that the book was deemed to be “too gay” for us suburban students. I just finished reading it, and here are some quotes.
At the beginning of the book, before the Pequod sets sail, the main character, Ishmael, is looking for a hotel. But all the hotels are full, and his only option is to share a room with Queequeg, the savage harpooner. The room has one large bed and no heat, so they have to snuggle together for warmth. There is no explicit sex, but there is a lot narrative like this:
“We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we…” (Kindle 1082)
“As we were going along the people stared; not at Queequeg so much – for they were used to seeing cannibals like him in their streets, – but at seeing him and me upon such confidential terms. But we heeded them not…” (Kindle 1148)
“How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.” (Kindle 1079)
After the Pequod leaves port, the love affair seems to come to an end, and the narrative turns to whaling, as you can imagine.
For some reason, sperm whales have about 100 barrels of oil inside of their heads. At first, people thought it was sperm, but that turned out to be wrong. It’s just some kind of mysterious oil. So, the word “sperm” in the context of whaling means the same thing as “whale oil.” Hence the quote at the top of the page (Kindle 3519); the sailors are excited by sperm because it is a valuable commodity, and they are rowing, pulling hard, to catch up with the whale.
Melville also uses the word “erect” quite a lot:
“The savage stood erect there” (Kindle 3540)
“erecting himself” (Kindle 3548)
“an erect posture” (Kindle 3554)
“erect attitude” (Kindle 3565)
“erected crests of enraged serpents” (Kindle 3609)
“the body was erect” (Kindle 3763)
“Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s!” (Kindle 4854)
“horses only show their erected ears” (Kindle 7502)
“her three firm-seated graceful masts erectly poised” (Kindle 7626)
“he stood erect” (Kindle 7700)
“the erect spar” (Kindle 8665)
Here’s a few more phrases:
“Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo” (Kindle 3556)
“Tashtego has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper” (Kindle 5336)
“Don’t ye love sperm?” (Kindle 5509)
“Jerk him off” (Kindle 7896)
“for bettor or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded” (Kindle 8822)
After catching a whale, the sailors would have to butcher it and process the oil so that it could be stored in barrels until the end of the voyage. The oil often had waxy lumps, and the sailors had to squeeze them down into oil. Ishmael loved that particular task:
“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!” (Kindle 6450)
Turns out, Melville wrote love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, not that there’s anything wrong with that… He also worked on a whaler, jumped ship, and spent a month living with the natives on the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. Getting is savage-freak on, no doubt.
I’m not sure why Moby Dick is so famous. It seemed terribly long-winded to me. And Melville’s characters didn’t strike me as real. In fact, they reminded me of Ayn Rand’s cardboard characters. I did enjoy learning about whaling, which is a fascinating subject, and the book is packed with many clever turns of phrase.
Whaling in a nutshell: Scientists don’t know why whales have oil in their heads, but they have some theories. You might think that a whale could just dive down and evade the whalers, but whales are mammals and have to come up for air. So, the whalers would just wait them out. A whaling ship didn’t chase whales itself, but put smaller boats in the water that had oars, as well as sails. That way they were not dependent on the wind. Sometimes they could row as fast as the whale could swim; sometimes not. While they had muskets, they didn’t shoot whales because they might just sink to the bottom. You wanted to harpoon them, with a rope attached to the harpoon so that you cold reel them in. And for that, you had to get up close and personal, which as you can imagine, was quite dangerous, especially considering that the whales didn’t appreciate being harpooned. You might think that a harpooned whale could just pull a boat under, or drag it around for weeks. But apparently, they bleed out from even the small wounds made by harpoons, so they are more vulnerable than they look.
Note: I loaded the Project Gutenberg version of Moby Dick onto my Kindle and read it there. So, that’s what the Kindle locations refer to. That text didn’t show the original page numbers.
Update: In March of 2021, a fascinating study on whaling was published: “Sperm Whales in 19th Century Shared Ship Attack Information.” Instead of forming defensive circles, as they did to fend of attacking orca, the whales began to swim upwind to foil the wind-powered ships. Their new tactic cut harpoon strikes by 58%!