Moby-Dick Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales Summary
Once again, we get general information about whaling from an indefinite first-person narrator who might be Ishmael and might not.
Given that the last chapter was definitely written in Ishmael’s voice, perhaps we can assume that this chapter continues on from there. Still, the ambiguity is worth noticing.
Ishmael explains that, soon, he’ll describe whales as accurately as he can – but first, he’s going to survey all the inaccurate descriptions of whales that circulate among idiot landlubbers like us.
"Monstrous" or false and exaggerated images of whales have, according to Ishmael, been around since the beginning of civilization in India, Egypt, and Greece.
The oldest image of a whale, Ishmael claims, is an Indian statue of the god Vishnu as half man and half whale.
Ishmael dislikes it because the tail tapers too much and isn’t a proportionally accurate representation. (Because, of course, naturalistic accuracy was the first concern of ancient Hindu sculptors trying to show the power of the gods.)
Actually, Ishmael admits, the earliest representations of whales by Christian artists aren’t any better, and images of the whale that devours Jonah are especially bad.
Symbolism alert: There also seem to be a lot of strange images of whales in the publishing world, and connections made between the whale and the book as physical objects.
But Ishmael realizes that, so far, he’s only been talking about artistic images, not scientific ones. So what about the scientific ones − are they any better? Not really.
Sometimes these scientific illustrations make it look as though whales are icebergs with polar bears running across them; sometimes they get the direction of the flukes wrong; sometimes they’re drawn out of scale. Sometimes they’re just really bad drawings in kids’ textbooks. Sometimes pictures are labeled with the wrong species name.
Ishmael even objects to the whales painted on signs at inns, because they have huge humps and look like vicious monsters that have four sailor tarts for breakfast every morning.
But, Ishmael says, he understands why so many of these images are inaccurate: they tend to be drawn using the beached or slaughtered whale as a model, which would be like trying to paint a portrait by looking at a corpse.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to paint the whale as it lives in the ocean, because its skeleton alone doesn’t give enough idea of its blubbery shape floating in the water.
The only way to really know what whales really look like, Ishmael tells us, is to go to sea and hunt them yourself.