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by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story Summary

  • Ishmael explains that the Cape of Good Hope is a popular area where lots of ships tend to meet.
  • This is why, shortly after meeting and passing the Goney, the Pequod encounters another ship, the Town-Ho.
  • The Town-Ho’s crew is mostly Polynesian.
  • The two ships have a Gam, and the sailors from the Town-Ho share news about Moby Dick.
  • What Ahab and the mates don’t know – what the captain of the Town-Ho doesn’t even know – is that there’s another part of the story that has been kept secret.
  • Three seamen from the Town-Ho know this secret and tell it to Tashtego, making him promise not to tell anyone.
  • Luckily for us, Tashtego talks in his sleep, and lets enough of the story slip that he’s forced to explain all of it to the other seamen.
  • Ishmael tells us the story in the same way, he reports, that he told it while drinking at the Golden Inn at Lima (the capital of Peru, if you remember your geography class) two years after his fateful voyage. He even includes the interruptions of two of his friends, Don Pedro and Don Sebastian, as they ask questions.
  • Got all that? This is a story told by three men from the Town-Ho to Tashtego, who tells it to Ishmael, who tells it in Lima and then tells us how he told it in Lima. So let the story-within-a-story begin:
  • The Town-Ho is sailing north of the equator in the Pacific when it develops a mysterious leak.
  • The crew can’t find the source of the leak, but it doesn’t seem very dangerous, so at first they just keep pumping water out of the hold.
  • Eventually, though, the leak becomes extreme and the crew starts to worry, so they set out for a nearby harbor.
  • The ship could make it to harbor without any problems – they have three dozen men who can keep the pumps working – except for a conflict between two men: the domineering mate, Mr. Radney, and an angry seaman named Steelkilt.
  • Radney is a Nantucketer and Steelkilt is a Lakeman (from the shores of Lake Erie), so we’ve already got some regional conflict going on.
  • Ishmael describes the areas around lakes as miniature oceans, with the same variety of peoples and wildlife on their shores and the same free spirit inspired by their open expanses of water. Steelkilt, as a Lakeman, is "wild-ocean born" (54.7). (Also, "Steelkilt" is definitely in the running for funniest name in the novel.)
  • Radney, even though he’s from Nantucket and has been raised in what amounts to an urban environment, is still "as vengeful and full of social quarrel as the backwoods seaman" (54.7).
  • So far, Radney has been a decent guy, and Steelkilt has behaved OK because he’s been treated with respect. So far.
  • After another day or two of sailing toward harbor, the Town-Ho’s leak seems to get worse again. According to Ishmael, this isn’t as bad as it sounds – most ships are always pumping some water out of the hold on a constant basis, and it’s really only alarming if you’re absolutely in the middle of nowhere.
  • Still, some of the men start to worry about the extent of the leak, especially Radney.
  • Most of the men take Radney’s caution as a joke, because Radney’s a part owner in the ship and he’s probably just nervous about his investment.
  • Ishmael reminds us that it’s pretty common for a superior who has a proud subordinate to try and crush that man if he can, and this is pretty much the case with Radney and Steelkilt.
  • Radney is an ugly, stubborn, nasty little man, and Steelkilt is as noble and proud as Charlemagne (or Billy Budd, a character in another Melville novel − this type of conflict is something of a theme for him).
  • Steelkilt is working with a group of other men to pump water out of the hold as Radney walks by.
  • Steelkilt ignores Radney and trash-talks him as though he isn’t there.
  • Steelkilt jokes that the hole in the ship was probably just caused by a swordfish and that, if Radney’s worried about it coming back with a saw-fish and a file-fish, he should jump overboard and chase all the fish away from the ship himself.
  • Radney demands that Steelkilt and the other men to keep working, and they do.
  • For a long time, they work as hard as they can at the pumps.
  • Eventually, exhausted, they have to take a break.
  • While Steelkilt is sitting, exhausted and sweating, Radney goes over and orders him to get a broom and a shovel and clean some pig poop off the deck. (Yes, they actually have a pig on board.)
  • Sweeping is usually something that boys do on the ship, and, as the captain of a gang of men working at the pump, Steelkilt shouldn’t have to do menial work like shoveling pig crap. It’s an obvious insult.
  • Steelkilt looks into Radney’s eyes and realizes that he’s losing it, so he doesn’t react too much; he quietly says that it’s not his job to clean the deck, and points out three boys who haven’t done anything all day and who are usually assigned to clean the deck.
  • Radney swears at Steelkilt and grabs a nearby hammer, which he shakes in the man’s face.
  • Steelkilt still stays calm; he walks slowly backwards away from the mate, refusing to get into a fight, as Radney keeps threatening him with the hammer.
  • Eventually, Steelkilt thinks he’s endured enough and stops retreating. He tells Radney that he’s not going to obey the order and that the mate should put the hammer down ...or else.
  • Radney swings the hammer. The moment that it touches Steelkilt’s cheek, Steelkilt knocks Radney’s jaw back into his head.
  • Radney falls down, bleeding profusely.
  • Steelkilt shakes one of the ropes attached to the masthead, where two of his friends are on lookout duty. His friends are both Canallers.
  • Ishmael explains to Don Pedro and Don Sebastian back in Lima that Canallers are Erie Canal boatmen, and he describes the canals as a lawless world of anarchy, something like the corruptions of Venice.
  • On the canals, the Canaller seems effeminate and heroic, but on land he’s terrifying to ordinary people.
  • Working on the canals is also sort of like a gateway drug – it can seduce you away from regular respectable life into seeking your fortune at sea.
  • Back to the story: Steelkilt is surrounded by four harpooneers and the other three mates, but his two Canaller friends come sliding down the ropes and start fighting at Steelkilt’s side.
  • A group of seamen join Steelkilt and the two Canallers and it turns into a huge brawl.
  • The captain rushes around, ordering his men to seize Steelkilt and trying to get to the man himself with his pike, but he can’t get through the crowd.
  • Steelkilt jumps up on the barricade and refuses to get down.
  • If he’s shot, he tells the captain, everyone will mutiny.
  • The men refuse to go back to work at the pumps unless the captain promises not to punish them.
  • For a while, it’s a standoff.
  • Steelkilt paces around on the barricade, alternately offering to surrender if he’s not punished and urging the seamen to arm themselves with knives.
  • Steelkilt tells the captain that he won’t attack anyone else, or urge the men to, unless the officers attack first – but they won’t go back to work unless the captain promises they won’t be flogged.
  • The captain won’t promise this, and so Steelkilt and the ten men who’ve been supporting him end up going down into the forecastle, where the captain locks them in.
  • This leaves 20 seamen on deck who haven’t taken sides yet.
  • All through night, some of the officers keep watch around the forecastle to make sure Steelkilt and his men don’t break out.
  • The other men keep working the pumps.
  • At dawn, the captain orders the men back to work, but they still refuse. They’re fed a little water and biscuit.
  • This happens twice more, but on the fourth day, four of the men break away from Steelkilt and join the captain. The next day, three more men return to work, leaving Steelkilt and the two Canallers still on strike.
  • Steelkilt and his friends plan to break out the next day and run amok on the ship, trying to seize control of it from the captain.
  • However, when Steelkilt falls asleep, the other two reveal to each other that they each plan to betray Steelkilt and surrender.
  • They bind and gag Steelkilt while he sleeps and holler for the captain.
  • The captain and his men rush in, seize all three of them, and hang them in the rigging. (They’re not hung by their necks – the captain doesn’t want to kill them – it’s more like hanging on the wall of a dungeon.)
  • At dawn, the captain summons everyone to the deck. He says he won’t flog the seven men who surrendered, but he whips the two Canallers (still in the rigging) until they’re unconscious.
  • The captain orders Steelkilt ungagged, so that the captain will be able to hear Steelkilt scream as he’s flogged.
  • When the gag’s removed and Steelkilt can speak, he says he’ll murder the captain if he’s flogged.
  • Steelkilt whispers something that only the captain can hear and, in shock and amazement, the captain throws down the rope and orders Steelkilt released.
  • As the three junior mates start to untie Steelkilt, Radney appears among them.
  • He’s been lying in bed nursing his head wound, but today, he hears the ruckus and comes up to see what it is.
  • He can hardly speak, but says that he’ll do what the captain doesn’t dare. He picks up the rope.
  • Steelkilt whispers his mysterious threat to Radney, but Radney whips him anyway.
  • The three men are taken down from the rigging and everyone goes back to work.
  • That evening, the two Canallers run up to the cabin and tell the captain and officers that they’re afraid of the crew. They’re put in protective confinement.
  • The rest of the men don’t seem ready to mutiny – they seem to be following instructions from Steelkilt to obey all orders until they get to a harbor, when they plan to desert the ship as a group.
  • They’ve agreed, however, not to call out if they see any whales.
  • Steelkilt is still waiting to take his own revenge on Radney.
  • He’s been assigned to work on Radney’s watch, which gives him plenty opportunity.
  • Radney has another strange habit that Steelkilt can use for his own purposes: he sometimes naps sitting on the quarterdeck, leaning on the boat that’s hoisted there. There’s a large gap between the boat and the ship’s sides that goes straight down to the sea.
  • Steelkilt spends the next day braiding something out of twine. He’s also observed with a large iron ball encased in netting.
  • Before Steelkilt can actually murder Radney, one of the sailors, forgetting about the pact not to sight whales, calls out that he’s seen Moby Dick.
  • The mates and harpooneers are excited about capturing a famous whale; the seamen are nervous about the ghostly, ghastly white monster.
  • The four boats are lowered; Steelkilt, of course, is the bowsman (main rower) in Radney’s boat.
  • Radney orders Steelkilt to ram their boat into the side of the whale; Steelkilt does, and Radney, holding his spear, is thrown from the boat onto the whale and flounders in the spray. Moby Dick snatches Radney in his mouth and plunges down into the sea.
  • Steelkilt cuts the line tied to Radney’s spear to keep the boat from being pulled down, too.
  • Moby Dick surfaces in the distance.
  • All that’s left of Radney are some bits of his shirt in the whale’s teeth.
  • The boats chase Moby Dick, but he escapes.
  • The Town-Ho finally reaches a harbor at some strange, unnamed island, where most of the men, including Steelkilt, desert.
  • They steal a native canoe and set off on their own.
  • The captain "call[s] upon the islanders to assist him" in fixing the leak in the bottom of the ship. In other words, he kidnaps a bunch of locals and enslaves them for a while to do all the work (54.87)
  • The captain and officers have to guard "their dangerous allies" – i.e., their slaves – so intensely that they’re eventually exhausted and don’t dare to sail using them as crewmembers (54.87). They anchor the ship far from the shore and the captain and one other man set out in a boat to Tahiti to get a replacement crew.
  • Four days later, they see a canoe, which is, of course, Steelkilt and his men.
  • Steelkilt boards the captain’s boat and makes him swear to beach his boat on a nearby island and stay there for six days, and then he goes back to his own canoe and leaves.
  • Steelkilt and his men make it to Tahiti and get work on other ships sailing for France before the captain can badmouth them.
  • Ten days after Steelkilt’s new ship leaves, the captain gets to Tahiti and hires some Tahitian sailors, takes them back to his ship, and resumes his voyage.
  • Ishmael ends by saying that nobody knows where Steelkilt is now, and Radney’s widow still dreams about Moby Dick.
  • Ishmael’s listener, Don Sebastian, asks if the story is really true, and all the other men listening chime in with the same question.
  • Ishmael sends for a priest with a copy of the four gospels (which he refers to as "the Evangelists") and swears, with his hand on the gospels, that the story he told "is in substance and its great items, true" (55.109) – whatever that means.
  • He also says he’s met Steelkilt since the mutiny.

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