Chapter 96: The Try-Works

Okay, okay, I had my fun, let’s get back to serious business.

Honestly, I got most of the way into writing a big thoughtful analysis of the last chapter, but it really comes down to that little joke. That’s all ya need to know to unravel everything. I only get to do that once, I think, the inverse of my old post where I spun like 2000 words out of a one-paragraph chapter. Ah, that was a good one.


Ishmael describes the appearance and usage of the try-works, two great iron pots that are installed in the middle of the Pequod. They are surrounded by masonry, to protect the wood of the ship, and are kept in immaculate condition. The harpooneers have the job of dropping in pieces of blubber and tending to the pots while they are in operation. The pots are fired and manned twenty four hours a day until all the fat is processed.  For fuel, at first they use wood shavings from the carpenter’s workshop, but once a few whales are caught, they use odds and ends of blubber that aren’t worth feeding into the pot itself.

Ishmael describes his own experience on the night watch, after the first whale was caught. He saw the flames illuminate the ship and crew and create a scene that seemed worse than the blackest pits of hell. A ship on fire, passing through the ocean, billowing smoke, lighting every rope with orange and red. He briefly fell asleep, and almost capsized the ship before realizing he had somehow been turned around.

Finally, Old Ishmael reflects on the nature of the fire, and how its light is a pale imitation of the power of the sun. But even the pure and good light of the sun is but a liar, showing us pretty shades that hide the true, underlying ugliness of all creation. The hellish scene he was witness to was a trick of the light, all better in the morning, but the sun still shines on the most desolate deserts, and the whole bulk of the wild, inhospitable oceans of the Earth. All that can be seen is vanity. ALL.


Hoo boy, this is a meaty one. Honestly, the thing this brings to mind, especially the lengthy description of the scene of the Pequod at night, lit by the fire of the pots, is cosmic horror stories. This seems to me to be part of the inspiration that leads to the creation of The Lair of the White Worm, and from there the works of HP Lovecraft.

Visions of Hell

Especially in uhhh how Ishmael draws on the “uncivilized” qualities of the harpooneers to enhance the horrifying effect of the scene. That’s honestly a bit surprising from someone who is married to one of their number, but I suppose it takes more than that, eh.

Anyway, the effect of all of this, along with some other passing references to hell and fire and the way the ship appears to be burning and belching out horrible, foul-smelling black smoke, is to get us to get to this line:

[…] as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

We’re making an analogy to Ahab’s soul, his state of mind: already dead, powered by the fires of emotion, seeking death and doom as it passes through a land of utter darkness. He carries his own fire, which he uses to burn up his victims, and himself.

The modern idea of Ahab is as a person consumed with a mania for vengeance against an animal. He is often portrayed as somewhat frivolous or ridiculous in his obsession, someone who has just gone crazy, but is otherwise fine. A person taking things too seriously, but not in a way that can’t be taken back.

In the novel, however, we see a sad portrait of a man hollowed out. He is already dead to the world, his despair has won out over his good sense. He will forgo every aspect of his former humanity to accomplish his goal, bit by bit. He burns his enemies, his friends, everything that exists before him, in the service of his one remaining reason for living. Who can blame him?

All is Dust

I really love the transition into the last third of this chapter, where we join young Ishmael cowering from this vision at the helm, doing his night watch. We see now that he knows that these horrible visions before him are a lie. These are all people he knows, doing their jobs, hanging out like any other night. It is merely the light of that hellish fire that gives them such a horrifying appearance.

So, we might make the inference that the truth can be found under the light of the sun, that all things appear less harsh when seen by its influence. But no, Ishmael immediately casts that notion aside:

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon.

The sun can undo the spell of a hellish night, but beneath its rays still lie many horrors.

I suppose there are a couple ways to interpret this. One is that this is very literal, we’re talking about how the appearance of things cannot always be altered by a change in perspective. Physical appearance is all lies, we’ve already talked about the charnel house of reality, lying in wait behind the petals of every flower.

The other is a more allegorical and very… theologically radical interpretation. It’s easy to take the gnostic move (spirit good; physical bad), but if we see the sun as a sort of metaphor for the light of God, then things get really interesting.

No Justice in the World

Then it’s about theodicy. All of these things exist beneath the sun’s rays, and therefore under God’s dominion. All of this grief, all of this pain, all of these things with infinite capacity for torture and death. The unrelenting darkness and horror of The Sea lays under the rays of the sun at all times, yet it does nothing to diminish its power.

What justice can there be in a world that contains such things, unrestricted, unpunished, left to wreak terrible violence on all creation?

I meant to get into this more in my big Avatar 2 review, but I got a bit distracted by that film’s numerous other issues. There is a notion among many well-meaning liberals and those into New Age philosophies that there is such a thing as being in harmony with nature. That nature has a kind of perfect, unspoiled balance, that pre-exists humans and has only been disrupted by our presence.

It comes from a place that is understandable, learning about ecosystems and the damage dealt by pollution and whatnot, but it is fundamentally wrong-headed. The so-called balance of nature is born from infinite pain and violence. Death, struggle, collapse, and endless repetition, that is the way of nature.

Everyone thinks that harmony means “everyone is nice to one another”. That there is a sort of perfect, Eden-ic existence just out our grasp, if we would only stop those factories from belching smoke and stop driving cars and watching TV.

The curse of man is to know that we can do better than nature. Alas! our reach ever exceeds our grasp. What justice can there be than to take your chance of a swipe at God? Under these circumstances, Ahab seems the most sane man of all.

Ahhh, that’s the stuff. Now we’re really getting into it! Oh, and there’s more to come on Ahab and what he’s been up to. We’re not done with his character arc yet, he has more to lose. Or rather, more to throw away as part of his quest. Ohohoho, yes, we’re gettin’ to the good stuff.

Until next time, shipmates!

3 thoughts on “Chapter 96: The Try-Works”

  1. Hey, VanGlider. I was wondering that you may know which chapter Ishmael take the whale’s perspective,like ” when he speculate how terrifying the huge shadows of the ships must be to the creature swimmingbelow”. I am working on an essay and I sincerely hope you may know the answer about which chapter it is and inform me of it.


  2. Thanks for keeping an eye out. In fact, “when he speculate how terrifying the huge shadows of the ships must be to the creature swimming below” derive from a video “Why should you read Moby Dick”. You may probably watch this video before and therefore you feel familiar. Thanks anyway.


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