This chapter returns to the first-person point of view, but it doesn’t seem to be from Ishmael’s perspective, so we’ll call the speaker "the narrator." Just for kicks.
The narrator takes some time out from the progress of the plot to review the details of cetology, a branch of marine science that studies marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, and porpoise, in the scientific order Cetacea.
DON’T TUNE OUT. This chapter may look at first like the beginning of a boring Zoology textbook, but it’s really funny. We promise.
Oh, and you might not want to use this to write a report about whales for your biology class. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The narrator starts by quoting a few eminent scholars who have written about cetology. What all of them agree on is that studying whales is "involved" or "utter confusion" or "unfathomable" or "impenetrable" or "incomplete" (32.3-5). Good thing we’re going to get some solid scientific facts here.
Of course, the narrator explains, there may not be any "real knowledge," but there are still plenty of books about whales!
He lists a few dozen authors who have written about them, most of whom are also quoted in the "Extracts" section at the beginning of the novel.
Only a few of these authors actually saw whales, and only one of them was a professional whaleman, Captain Scoresby. Scoresby knew a lot about the Greenland or right whale but not much about the sperm whale.
The narrator claims that the sperm whale is the real king of whales.
According to the narrator, there are two books that describe the sperm whale firsthand in scientific terms (by Beale and Bennett), but they’re pretty limited, so the sperm whale "lives not complete in any literature" (32.8).
The narrator decides that, since nobody’s been able to put together a classification system or family tree of whales, he’ll have to do it himself. Still, he says he knows it will be a rough sketch − because what is he, a biologist? But he’ll try anyway.
The narrator finds two main problems with making a classification system for whales:
First, are whales fish, or what? The narrator knows that Linnaeus (an eighteenth-century Swedish botanist and zoologist who laid the foundations of the modern biological system of classification) said whales aren’t fish, because they’re warm-blooded and have lungs, whereas fish are cold-blooded and have gills.
The narrator acknowledges Linnaeus’s point but, meh – he still decides that the whale is pretty much a fish anyway, à la Jonah. Good thing our narrator is a logical guy, eh?
Second, how do we define "whale" as a specific category? The narrator decides to define "whale" as "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail" (32.14).
But, the narrator assures us, that doesn’t mean he’s excluding anything that Nantucketers have called a whale before, even if it doesn’t fit his definition.
Except, he says (in a footnote), he knows there are fish called pig-fish and sow-fish that some people call whales, and he excludes them. Make sense? Nah, it’s not supposed to.
The narrator divides the whales into classification categories, which he calls "books" and "chapters." Hmm…whales are being treated as novels. Interesting, that, in a novel about a whale.
The three "books" of whales are the "folio whale," the "octavo whale," and the "duodecimo whale." Flash History Lesson: This is another book joke, because folio, octavo, and duodecimo are three common nineteenth-century sizes of books. Each size is related to how many times you fold a large standard sheet of paper to make the pages. Folios are the largest, octavo are mid-sized, and duodecimo are tiny, so the narrator is just dividing up whales by their size, a pretty basic characteristic.
Within "Book I," the "Folio Whales," the narrator includes six "Chapters" of whales, each of which is what we’d call a species. The six are: the Sperm Whale, the Right Whale, the Fin-Back, the Hump Back, the Razor Back, and the Sulphur Bottom.
The Sperm Whale comes first (of course). According to the narrator, sperm whales are the biggest and the best whales around.
The main thing the narrator wants to talk about here is why they’re called "sperm whales." We know you’ve been snickering into your hand about that one, and guess what: you should.
We’re giving you a big literary-critical thumbs-up about the dirty joke here. Every time we see the phrase "sperm whale" in the novel, just imagine that Melville is digging his elbow into your ribs and saying "get it? sperm?"
(Don’t even get us started on all the puns on "seamen.")
The narrator explains how he thinks they came to be called sperm whales.
Sperm whales produce a valuable oily substance called "spermaceti," and people thought that it was actually the semen of the Greenland or right whale, but it wasn’t.
When they finally figured it out, people started calling the whale spermaceti actually comes from the "sperm whale," and the name stuck.
Anyway, spermaceti’s going to be pretty important later in the novel.
The Right Whale is the first that people hunted, and from it we get whalebone and baleen and whale oil (not the same as spermaceti). Melville lumps together six or so different names for whales here, blithely claiming they’re all basically the same anyway and that the whole problem with naturalists is that they’re always dividing things up into too many categories. Wait…isn’t that what he was supposed to be doing here? Oh, well.
Next comes the Fin-Back Whale, which has – are you ready for this? – a big fin on its back. We know you’re shocked. Oh, and it seems like a sinister whale version of Cain.
Of course, the narrator admits that lots of different whales have fins on their backs, but he can’t be bothered to use superficial features like that to classify whales.
It’s not the outsides of whales, their humps or fins or teeth or baleen or anything, that makes it possible to classify them.
Is it their insides? Nope, that’s pretty much the same, too.
They have to be classified in a bibliographical system, like books, because that’s the only thing that will work, says the narrator. (No, that is not supposed to make sense.)
Next comes the Hump Back Whale, which isn’t the only whale with a hump on its back and doesn’t have very valuable oil, but is a cheerful playful sort of creature.
Next is the razor back whale. Nobody knows anything about it, including the narrator.
Last of the "folio whales" is the Sulphur Bottom Whale, which has a yellow belly and looks like it’s been scraping along the ceiling of hell.
Now the narrator lists five kinds of "Octavo Whales," which are the Grampus, the Black Fish, the Narwhale, the Killer, and the Thrasher. (They sound like nicknames for pro-wrestlers, don’t they?)
First comes the Grampus, which most people don’t call a whale, but some do. Seeing a grampus may mean that there’s a sperm whale nearby, hint hint.
Next comes the Black Fish, which the narrator suggests should be called the Hyena Whale instead because there are lots of black fish. It can be a poor substitute for a sperm whale for hunters.
Next is the Narwhale, which is sometimes called the "Unicorn Whale" because it has a long single sharp tusk on the left side. Nobody really knows what it uses this for, perhaps to rake up food, perhaps to break up ice. The narrator thinks it should use the tusk to turn the pages while it reads.
Next is the Killer Whale, which our narrator says isn’t usually hunted and seems savage. The narrator objects to its name, saying that "we are all killers, on land and on sea" (32.35).
Last of the "Octavo Whales" is the "Thrasher Whale," which supposedly swims on the back of other whales and uses its tail to whip them and make them move forward.
The narrator lists three types of "Duodecimo Whales," which are all porpoises. The narrator says that they may not seem like whales because they’re so small, but he has to include them because they fit his definition of "a spouting fish with a tail."
The first is the Huzza Porpoise, which the narrator himself named because it’s supposed to be a good omen. ("Huzza" is an older version of "hooray.") The Huzza Porpoise is sort of like a miniature sperm whale.
The next is the Algerine Porpoise, which is larger and savage.
The last is the Mealy-Mouthed Porpoise, which is the largest one and looks like it just made a sneaky visit to its food dish.
The narrator explains that he’s going to stop there and not talk about any of the other whales that he knows "by reputation, but not personally." He lists a few dozen of them.
After all, he promised that his classification system would be incomplete, and he’s got to keep that promise.
It’s like a cathedral that is so grand that it can’t be completed by the first architect. Thus, the narrator expresses the hope that he’ll never finish anything. (We just hope he finishes the novel.)