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by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick Chapter 57: Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars Summary

  • Ishmael describes a one-legged beggar who stands near the docks in London holding up a painted board that depicts the whale-hunting scene in which he lost his leg.
  • Ishmael explains that the beggar’s paintings of whales are as good as any he’s seen.
  • Many sailors carve images of whales, whaling ships, and hunting scenes on pieces of whale-bone and whale-tooth to pass the time while they’re on board ship; these are called "skrimshander." (You may have seen some of it on the Antiques Roadshow; if you ever find any, send it to us, because it’s valuable stuff.)
  • Ishmael compares the sailors carving whalebone (and sometimes wood) to different tribesmen – Native Americans, Hawaiians, and ancient Greeks – patiently working beautiful sculptures out of wood and bone. The sailor, he claims, is just as savage as any primitive tribesman.
  • Ishmael observes many other images of whales throughout the world, from brass door knockers to iron weather vanes to statues made of rock.
  • Sometimes you can even see the shape of a whale in the stone of a cliff, if you’re really obsessed with whales (as Ishmael inarguably is), or the outline of a whale as a starry constellation overhead in the evening sky. ("Cetus," "the whale," is a recognized constellation in the southern hemisphere.

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