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by Herman Melville

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.

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