Chapter 97: The Lamp

Ahhh, time for a nice, short chapter.

Surely that means my post will be nice and short as well, right? Well, that remains to be seen. There are some interesting ideas to be teased out of this one, I think.


Ishmael describes how the bunks of the Pequod were always lit up by dozens of lamps, at all hours of the day. Unlike sailors on merchant vessels, who have to bumble around in the dark, whalers have access to the finest possible fuel for lamps, and so they use it as much as they please. Everyone has a handful of lamps made from old bottles, filled straight from the tank where the rendered oil cools.


So, the surface-level intepretation here is: this is just a little joke. One area where the poor, bedraggled whalers have one up on even the richest back on shore, they can use the finest possible oils for their lamps, and keep them lit all the time, just for fun.

What ridiculous extravagance! These grubby whalers lighting up their cabins throughout the night, just enjoying the beautiful glow of their hard-won oil, burning in humble little lamps made from whatever odds and ends are handy.

Or, to put it another way, this chapter is about-

The Social Construction of Status

Now, saying something like “social status is socially constructed” is the sort of thing that sounds profound at first glance, but when you think about it for five seconds it’s blindingly obvious. Yes, of course, that’s just what those words mean. Someone having higher social status is something that comes from their society, it’s not natural. It’s why you even say “social status” and not just… “status”.

But bare with me for a moment, all the same.

What matters most is the context of that construction. Back on land, being able to afford and burn all of that fine whale oil willy nilly is a sign of great status. After all, this is the stuff they use for coronations! Nowadays, of course, you can have as much light as you want for pennies, but back then it was a big deal to light up a whole house for a whole night. Only the very rich could afford to do so.

And at sea as well. Maybe the personal cabin of the captain would be lit up at night, so they could tend to the logs and whatnot, but the sailors have to make due with whatever natural light makes it down through the planks of the deck.

But specifically on a whaling ship, having access to whaling oil is not a big deal at all. Under those circumstances, using the stuff is a sort of celebration, an indulgence taken simply because you can, for the joy of it. There’s plenty to go around, you might as well use it!

The further from the source of the thing, the greater weight is placed on its prestige and status as a commodity. As the object is removed from its original context, it gains novelty and excitement, and can be sold more and more and marked up as an extravagance.

Remember way back the beginning of the book, we learned that the streets of New Bedford are all lit up with pure whaling oil. They don’t have to rely on gas, they can get it easily from all the whaling ships that dock there!

Luxury is in the Eye of the Beholder

What constitutes luxury, the high status of commodities, is also entirely determined by context. What may be rare in one place, is common in another. But, more than that, in this modern age, it also depends on how it is being sold within the social context.

Selling things to rich people is one of the most lucrative things you can do, but it’s very hard to get into that particular line of work. It’s one of those things that is entirely dependent on social connections. Literally getting things in front of the right people, getting their eyes on it, is all that it takes to mark it as luxurious. The actual quality of the thing is secondary compared to presentation.

This is what it truly means for status to be a socially constructed phenomenon. The clothes and affect of the rich are not inherently superior or inferior to yours or mine. It’s all fake.

Take a look at lobster, that cockroach of the seas. A hundred years ago, it was the disgusting food of the poor, who couldn’t afford better. Now, it is a symbol of status, spoken of in rarified tones, without even a listed price on most menus; the market rate: whatever they can get away with!

Tell Me a Story

There’s something I always come back to when thinking about things like this. It’s a thing that I learned in my philosophy classes in college: you can tell a story to justify anything. Rhetoric, on its own, is meaningless, just like aesthetics.

To me, this is what social construction means. It all depends on how much you buy into different ideas, that’s what meaning they hold for you, nothing more and nothing less. If you believe the story being told, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or well-argued, it convinced you.

In the same way, social construction is no laughing matter. It determines how we all live our lives. But it’s important to remember that there’s nothing underneath. Rather than turtles all the way down, there’s simply nothing underneath.

Centuries of tradition, bah! What is it compared to the untold eons that the Earth has sun around the Sun? That the seas have churned and washed the shores, reducing towering cliffs to sand? The weight of these things is only what you make of it!

Ahhhhh, yeah. I was a little worried I was losing the thread on this one, but I managed to find it again. I do feel that I come back to similar themes a bit too much myself, but it comes with the territory, I suppose. Analyzing the same book, which isn’t obligated to swap out its themes as it goes on, on such a granular level, it’s bound to happen.

I’ve been on vacation from work this week, and I was planning on writing more here, but I got too caught up in relaxing. Oh well, I suppose that is rather the point of a vacation, is it not? I’d like to have another post done this weekend, but we’ll see. I also have an appointment to play perhaps ten or twelve solid hours of Octopath Traveler 2, and I would have to miss out on that!

Until next time, shipmates!

1 thought on “Chapter 97: The Lamp”

  1. Whalers and their whaling oil extravagance….good thought to keep in mind . I guess our values ,even our perceptions are subjective, past all the turtles and beyond!

    Liked by 1 person

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