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by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick Chapter 80: The Nut Summary

  • Since physiognomy doesn’t teach us anything about the whale, Ishmael tries phrenology—a similar nineteenth-century pseudoscience in which you assess character according to the shape and bumps of the skull.
  • Unfortunately, the whale’s brain is tucked away in an odd part of its head, and the exterior appearance of the head isn’t related to the shape of the brain at all.
  • If you were to remove all the sperm oil from the whale’s head and then look at it from behind, it would look like a human skull, says Ishmael.
  • For a phrenologist, this skull would indicate an individual with "no self-esteem, and no veneration" (80.3)—in other words, no ego and no superego, no self-interest and no awe for others.
  • Next, Ishmael tries to develop his own form of phrenology based on the shape of the creature’s spine: the whale’s long, strong spine, he theorizes, might make up for its tiny brain.
  • The whale’s hump is caused by one of its larger vertebrae, and Ishmael makes this vertebrae represent the whale’s "indomitableness" (80.6).

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