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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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