Chapter 90: Heads or Tails

The more I reread this book, the more I find that old advice about skipping every other chapter baffling.

The idea was that the book switched back and forth between narrative and non-narrative chapters, so if you want a “normal” book you could just skip them, but as we’ve seen that is not at all the case. Instead, what happens is that Ishmael will give us a chunk of the story, and then go off on a bunch of tangents related to that narrative, and then those tangents themselves. Moby Dick is a weird book, and you just kinda have to deal with it.


Ishmael describes a particular case that illustrates the laws of loose and fast fish, by way of an exception to that general law of whaling. It is thus: any whale caught on the coast of England belongs to the king, because he is the honorary harpooneer of the whole island.

There was a case of some mariners beaching a whale in some southern English port city, and  an official representing the local Lord Warden came in and claimed it for himself, as the representative of the crown. The men complain and contest, but the Lord Warden is in the right and doesn’t give them a single shilling of the whale’s value when it is processed and sold.

Ishmael then wonders at the reasoning for the law, and discovers that it is because of the whale’s “superior excellence”. For once, he cannot argue with that. But also, traditionally, the head of the whale is given to the king, and the tail to the queen, and what is the reason for that? He cannot fathom it. The traditional clothes-based explanation holds no water, as the ribs used in corsets come from the head, not the tail.

The chapter closes with the revelation that this law also applies to sturgeons, which Ishmael takes as the explanation for the split, in a way that is completely incomprehensible to me, but might be a dirty joke.

Why a sturgeon???


Ahhh, man, it’s always very satisfying to have an inkling about what a book is going on about, only to have it basically confirmed in the next chapter. The situation here is a perfect example of the type of power dynamic and negotiations I was talking about in the last chapter!

It is fun when we go from an event in the plot that leads to a philosophical idea, then back into a practical example from history. Sort of taking the arc from fiction back to reality.

Who is The Law For?

The case that Ishmael gives us is, in a word, ridiculous.

Obviously the whale should go to the mariners who caught it, regardless of whether they kept it in their boat or brought it back on land. It is seized only on account of a ridiculous medieval law, which applies to whales only because they’re cool. It’s literally the kind of “wacky” nonsense law that people love to read lists of, like all the swans belonging to the queen or it being illegal to serve wine to a bear in Colorado or whatever.

It’s something done by tradition, that suddenly takes on very serious and life-altering stakes. Someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the work is getting to reap all the reward. By common reasoning, it is the epitome of an unjust outcome.

This is enforced by the means of the court, officers of the law, and social conventions. See how the mariners just stand by shy and demure while the lawyer insists that the whale belongs to the Duke!

But what is actually happening here? What is the reason that the whale goes to the Lord Warden? It’s because it was brought in to the land, where it was vulnerable to seizure by someone with the ability to do so. On the sea, that whale would be floating next to a whaling ship, and no nosy lawyer would be able to walk up and plonk their volume of Blackstone down on the whale’s head. There would be no court proceeding.

People in control of the space set the rules. It’s a very basic point, but this is a good example of the real-world implications of it.

Different Worlds

Being on a ship, on the ocean, is tantamount to living in a whole different world than being on the land. It has its own laws, its own customs, its own realities. This is why the law of fast-fish and loose-fish is so important to whalers: there must be some standard, or else it will revert to all-out warfare.

Melville is very interested in the idea of ships as their own contained worlds. His later books often concerned cases of injustice at sea, and we’ve certainly seen it crop up a few times in this book. The hermetic world of each individual ship will have its own peculiarities.

At sea, much like the brutal laws of nature, the realities of social friction are laid bare. Sailors have a reputation for being superstitious, but it is only because their beliefs are different from those landlubbers who call them so.

On a ship, the stakes of every action are much, much higher. Obedience, professionalism, respect, these all carry a much greater weight, because the world is so much smaller. And especially on a whaling ship that won’t be returning to port for several years.

This is the aspect, I believe, that fascinates Melville to no end. We’ve seen an example of a mutiny story in this, and we’ve seen and will see Ahab working hard to maintain his spell over the crew. After all, if they wanted to forget the white whale and head home, they could just do that. He may be a strong old man, but there’s only one of him, and a lot of everyone else.

The Space of Negotiation

In the case presented so humorously in this chapter, we see three scenes of negotiation, trying to come to a more amenable resolution. First, the whalers appeal to the man who is there to seize the whale, to no avail. Just a typical hard-headed enforcement of the law, the attitude which must be cultivated in all such people in order to do their jobs.

The second negotiation is carried out in the press:

Thinking that viewed in some particular lights, the case might by a bare possibility in some small degree be deemed, under the circumstances, a rather hard one, an honest clergyman of the town respectfully addressed a note to his Grace, begging him to take the case of those unfortunate mariners into full consideration. To which my Lord Duke in substance replied (both letters were published) that he had already done so, and received the money, and would be obliged to the reverend gentleman if for the future he (the reverend gentleman) would decline meddling with other people’s business.

An appeal is made, with a blunt reply. This is really appealing to the notion of common decency, but the most privileged are often immune to such things, since they can simply stonewall and know that the people who matter (those who enforce the law) will be on their side.

After all, it’s not like there’s going to be a massive revolution on the cause of some mariners being poorly treated. It’s just another little straw, not likely to break any backs, especially with the flimsy justification of “minding your own business”.

We’ve already seen in this same little anecdote that the English are very constrained by social convention, so it only makes sense that this line of argument would be effective. The simple fact of the law is that the whale belongs toe the Duke, that’s the end of the story. It’s his business what is done with it, if he keeps the money nobody is allowed to say he was in the wrong!

The third scene of negotiation is Ishmael trying to discover the reasoning for this obviously absurd and unjust law. He goes digging through his English law books, and finds an answer that satisfies him:

Says Plowdon, the whale so caught belongs to the King and Queen, “because of its superior excellence.”

Swayed by this simple flattery, Ishmael concludes that this is a tough but fair law. Who can deny that whales are excellent? Certainly not him!

It doesn’t matter if there’s a good reason, just that there’s a reason. This is all a matter of rhetoric, not of logical proofs. That’s what this is all about, these laws and negotiations around them. Telling the right story, using the right words, finding the right source of authority that is respected by the right peope.

One nice thing about this project is that the extreme length of this book gives me opportunities to come back around to ideas, to really develop them over time as they continue to recur within the text. Havine the time and space to really explore these ideas in depth, over many weeks and months (and years (sorry)) helps to give them the weighty consideration that they deserve.

There’s a lot more good stuff coming up, I’m excited to get to it. A whole subplot that has only been hinted at! More whale facts! More philosophical digressions!

Until nex time, shipmates!

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