Chapter 84: Pitchpoling

Ah, after a couple of chapters of non-narrative philosophizing, we get back to a bit of whale hunting.

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This one is kind of tricky, I’m not sure if I’m really going to be able to wring a lot of philosophical meaning out of it, but there is a mystery to be solved. Namely: what the heck is pitchpoling, actually? Let’s get into it.

[ Summary ]

One day, Queequeg is diligently greasing the bottom of his whaling boat, as is his wont, when one of the lookouts on the masthead raises a whole herd of whales. The ship turns to pursue them, but they flee in all directions.

Stubb’s boat pursues one, and Tashtego manages to land a solid hit with his harpoon. But, instead of diving for the bottom of the ocean, the whale continues its flight along the surface, with increased velocity. The boat is being dragged along, and they don’t want to be taken too far, so Stubb resolves to utilize the special whaling technique of picthpoling.

It involves a lance mounted on the end of a larger spear, a good ten or twelve feet long, which is then tossed at the beast with a long rope attached. This technique can only be used when the whale is already secured with a harpoon, but is a very accurate way to cause grievous wounds in the case where it remains on the surface. After a few pitchpoles, the whale spurts blood and rolls in its death throes. Stubb compares the red gore it spews to whiskey and moonshine, wishing he could share a cup with his whole boat, then silently watches the whale die.


[ Analysis ]

So, we have here Ishmael imparting with us a Secret Whaling Technique, no doubt directly from Melville’s own experience aboard a whaling ship, or at least the boasting of some old retired whaler. You do get the impression that Melville himself did some secondhand research at the various smoky run-down whaling inns of Nantucket, to further furnish his tale with whaling wisdom.

Of all the wondrous devices and dexterities, the sleights of hand and countless subtleties, to which the veteran whaleman is so often forced, none exceed that fine manœuvre with the lance called pitchpoling. Small sword, or broad sword, in all its exercises boasts nothing like it. 

I do appreciate the old fashioned spelling of “manœuvre”, caught halfway between its transition to the American “maneuver” and British “manoeuvre”. English has a tendence to lost letters over the centuries, especially with the invention of typesetting and the need to simplify things. The poor “œ” is another one of these.

Sussing out the Action

Okay, so what the heck is Stubb doing, actually? I have tried to do some outside research on it, but the only results are either referring directly to this chapter of Moby Dick, or refer to the other nautical meaning of “pichpole”, which is where a boat flips forward so that its bow is below its stern. Look at this video from Yachting World for a good example.

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That is clearly not what’s happening here, since it somehow involves a very long spear, and kills a whale, instead of pitching everyone out of the boat. The specific description of what Stubb does is as follows:

Then holding the lance full before his waistband’s middle, he levels it at the whale; when, covering him with it, he steadily depresses the butt-end in his hand, thereby elevating the point till the weapon stands fairly balanced upon his palm, fifteen feet in the air. He minds you somewhat of a juggler, balancing a long staff on his chin. Next moment with a rapid, nameless impulse, in a superb lofty arch the bright steel spans the foaming distance, and quivers in the life spot of the whale.

When I first read this book, I assumed it meant that they were using this extremely long lance in order to allow the blade to just fall directly on the whale. There was no tossing involved at all, just line it up and let gravity do the work. But I see now that that is not the case.

It seems now more along the lines of a one-handed caber toss, with this long, yet relatively light, pike held in the palm of the hand, then heaved in the direction of the whale. Though it seems like that would be an unnecessarily difficult way to handle it, surely a straightforward throw, like the initial harpoon toss, would make more sense?

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But then, perhaps that is the reason this is a Secret Technique, and something only an expert whaler like Stubb can pull off. He’s doing the proper thing, but also kind of showing off. The fact that the spear is thrown multiple times and reeled back in is also very telling, it doesn’t have to be super accurate I suppose.

What it Says About Stubb

I think I have a pretty good image in my mind’s eye of what Stubb was up to, now. So, the question remains: what’s the point of this chapter? Well, I think beyond furthering the theme of aggrandizing whaling and whalers, it helps to further characterize one Stubb.

The little speech that Stubb gives is typical of him, kind of making a light joke of his work, showing incredible self confidence and easy-going friendliness. To my mind, the character of Stubb represents a person to whom whaling is just a job like any other. It’s something he enjoys doing, but it’s also just work, another day at the office.

So in this extraordinary circumstance, a whale fleeing along the surface, which we’ve heard many times can be deadly for whalers, he brings out a special technique and easily resolves the situation. Tossing a fifteen-foot spear fourty feet into the back of a leviathan, he simply enjoys his handiwork.

The agonized whale goes into his flurry; the tow-line is slackened, and the pitchpoler dropping astern, folds his hands, and mutely watches the monster die.

The Evolution of Melville

Something interesting strikes me about this. In the past, Melville found financial success with his south seas adventure stories, Typee and Omoo. They depicted extraordinary stories of survival against the odds, lost in the wilds of the various islands of the vast Pacific Ocean.

But this book is something completely different. It is being presented to use as a grand epic, with all the glorious language surrounding whaling, and Ahab in particular, but at the end of the day it’s just about another workplace. Chapters like this are meant to make us ooh and ahh at the prowess of whalers, but underneath it all is a current of normality.

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Melville has shifted gears, shifting his interest from extraordinary situations to relatively mundane ones. A ship sinking at sea is something that happens pretty regularly, and the perils of whaling have been well documented for us already.

This book is essentially about the trauma of work. How getting caught up in something that seemed like a fun lark, or an epic adventure, is really nothing more than malfeasance. What happened to the Pequod is really nothing that unusual, except that it happened to Ishmael, among all people, and he is trying to grapple with it.

The shift is one of perspective in regards to what kinds of stories are worth telling. Is it only heroic stories, or it it stories of regular people? Is Ishmael lionizing Ahab into a heroic and demonic figure just a ploy to make the story more interesting?


Ah, I must leave you with a question at the end, because I don’t have any answers, at least not yet. Just bringing up some more things to look out for. This stuff definitely connects back to that notion about invisible labor that I’ve belabored in the past.

It makes one think of the movie The Taking of Pelham 123, and the difference between the original and the remake. In the original, the hero is an out of shape, ordinary guy, but in the hero he is a Movie Star. How do the people that are put before as heroic shape the culture in which we live? There are always lead-on effects, as things shift over time.

You could analyze Moby Dick as the tale of industrial workers killed by their boss acting recklessly. But in order to get people to pay attention, you have to tell the story the right way. I’ve mentioned before that Melville’s writing on the injustice of flogging at sea literally lead to policy changes in navies around the world, so he knows what he’s doing here.

Until next time, shipmates!

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