Chapter 20: All Astir

Today’s chapter is pretty short and breezy, but still does some important work. As we approach the fateful voyage of the Pequod, the omens and portents of its ruin are gathering thick in the air.

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But, there are still the final preparations to make. So many little things must be taken care of. The ship will be away from land for three whole years, so they must plan for every eventuality.


SUMMARY: The Pequod has had most of its heavy cargo loaded, but still requires more preparation before it can leave. Numerous small, yet very helpful, items are brought aboard by Bildad’s sister, who the sailors call Aunt Charity. Bildad himself never leaves the deck, sleeping in his whalebone wigwam. He rushes out occasionally to give directions to the riggers. Peleg, on the other hand, carries a long checklist with him, making sure that everything little thing is accounted for. Ishmael and Queequeg visit every day, and ask about Ahab, but he has still come aboard. Finally, the day comes when the ship is to set sail!


The main thrust of this chapter is basically this: a whaling voyage lasts three whole Gregorian years, and they never stop in ports unless the ship is actively sinking, so absolutely everything must be prepared for.

Hence, the spare boats, spare spars, and spare lines and harpoons, and spare everythings, almost, but a spare Captain and duplicate ship.

It is especially vital for whaling ships to over-prepare, because the business of killing whales is so dangerous and fraught with accident, that it is very common for the tools of killing to be destroyed. And if you can’t do your job, why are you even out there?

Now, the question may arise in your mind: why don’t they just stop at a port? After all, it’s a very long voyage anyway, how much time could they lose?

The answer is: a lot. The main cruising ground of whaling vessels is the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Japan. This was in the days when Japan was not open to foreign trade with the sole exception of a single port that was tightly controller, and even then only Dutch ships were allowed. It is true that whaling ships sometimes stopped there, but only when they were basically destroyed, in an emergency. The time it would take to travel all the way to China or the Philippines or some other open port is enormous.

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But the bigger reason is simply that whaling is a business where you have you be ready at all times. We’ll get into the finer details later, as with every possible aspect of whaling, but lookouts for whales are posted from the minute the ship leaves port. There are places where whales are known to be at certain times of year, but really they can be encountered absolutely anywhere in the ocean. There are no barriers to them, if you are on the open ocean, there is always a possibility, no matter how small, that a whale could appear, suddenly.

So, to be successful, you want to spend as much time as possible ready and able to kill a whale, should one appear. That means not running back to port for supplies or spare harpoons or what-have-you. It’s about efficiency, it takes a tremendous effort to put together one of these voyages, a huge investment, so you want to put the time you have to good use.

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At the end of the day, it’s good to keep in mind that this whole enterprise exists in order to enrich the investors in the ship. One of the more direct ways that this book criticizes capitalism, I believe, is the way that the whole existence of the voyage in the first place is placed at their feet. All the hardships that the men on board endure, and it is all merely in the name of making some money.

Think back to the Whaleman’s Chapel! All those stone tablets adorning the walls, those anonymous deaths thousands of miles from home. All in the name of making a return on investment.

The interesting thing is that Melville makes it a more nuanced argument. The main investors are widows and orphans, after all. The people of Nantucket in general are not living in great big mansions, demanding that sailors kill themselves to make one more dollar of profit. They are not the traditional villains of anticapitalist polemics. Rather, he is interested in showing the ways that these systems bring about tragedy no matter who is actually in charge, or what their motives are.

Indeed, the investors in the Pequod that we actually see are the two Quakers, Bildad and Peleg, who are actively involved in preparing the ship, doing hard work alongside the sailors, and Aunt Charity. The latter shows concern not only for the ability of the men to do their job and return on her investment, but their comfort on this long voyage. She brings on small, personal items: “extra quills for the steward, a roll of flannel for someone’s rheumatic back”. All this, and she only has invested a few dollars, enough to cover a few feet of decking, nothing more.

It’s very easy for economic and political theorists to envision life as a kind of bloodless calculus, played out on spreadsheets and grid maps. Human beings are not automata that behave in perfectly rational ways at all times. In between the lines on the graph, there are people out there living their lives, in a messy, unpredictable way.

This is why the actual character of the people in charge is so important, and why Ishmael is so interested in meeting Captain Ahab. When you are to be on a ship, under the command of a particular person, for three whole years, you’d really want to know what they’re like ahead of time. Everyone keeps assuring him that Ahab is a great man, who truly cares about his crew, and though he may be severe he is good at heart. But there’s no substitute for the real thing.

But, Ahab remains indisposed. Bildad and Peleg assure Ishmael that he’s feeling better, almost fully recovered from the recent loss of his leg, and should be along any day. To them, he’s just had a bad accident. It happens in this industry! Quite often, in fact, and it’s a miracle that he didn’t die. He’s a tough old man, he’ll be fiiiiiiiine. Just needs a few more days to get back on his feet (pun fully intended).

Ishmael is unsettled by this. He has an inkling that something bigger has gone wrong, that something is not right about Ahab. But, ultimately he resolves to go along with the voyage, since he’s already signed on and everything.

I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.

These small complicities, going against our instincts, often add up to a greater tragedy, in the fullness of time. At every stage, reputation overcomes evidence. Ahab has been vouched for, he has experience, he’s got a dozen whaling voyages under his belt. A bad feeling isn’t enough to overcome that evidence.

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And so, we move inevitably towards disaster.


I actually meant to introduce this anticapitalist interpretation of the book a few chapters ago, when I noticed this interesting line in The Ramadan:

or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.

Seems rather red, doesn’t it? To use an old expression.

But, it is easier to explore here, now that we’ve gotten some more information about how whaling voyages are funded. I’ll be adding more to it as we go on. It’s something I’ve read a little bit about, but have never really noticed how deep it goes until this reading.

Until next time, shipmates!


Image Credits

The Ship Fled the Storm (1870), by Gustave Dore.

Map of the range of the sperm whale, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (range in blue).

The Departure from Aigues Mortes (1875), by Gustave Dore.

Form is Void, by Reika Iwami.

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