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by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick Chapter 96: The Try-Works Summary

  • All American whaling ships, the Pequod included, have a sort of kiln in the middle of the deck, which is made out of bricks called "try-works," in which there are two huge "try-pots" (remember the name of that inn in Nantucket, back in chapter 15?) with iron furnaces underneath them.
  • At nine o’clock on the evening Stubb killed the whale, the sailors fire up the try-works.
  • At first they use wood shavings as fuel; later they’ll use the blubber left over from the try-works processing.
  • By midnight, the try-works are going full steam, and the ship, carrying a strange sooty fire, seems like some demon come to sail around on the ocean.
  • Here’s what happens at the try-works: the harpooneers use poles to throw huge pieces of whale-blubber into the hot pots, where the oil in the blubber liquefies and is separated from the rest of the whale’s flesh so that it can be stored in a relatively pure form.
  • Ishmael thinks that the sight of the ship "freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness" is a symbol of Ahab’s "monomaniac" (i.e., totally obsessed) soul (96.7).
  • Ishmael, who is at the helm steering the ship during this process, drifts off into strange dreams.
  • He starts awake and can’t see the compass to steer by; he feels like the ship is rushing, not toward, but away from all points of safety. He grabs the tiller, but it’s strangely inverted. He’s confused and horrified.
  • Finally, Ishmael realizes that, in his sleep, he turned around and he’s grasping the wrong side of the helm with his back to the prow and compass.
  • Ishmael turns around just in time to keep the ship from capsizing.
  • Ishmael reminds himself (and us) that, in the morning natural sunshine, will fall on the deck of the ship and make everything seem less sinister.
  • Yet, he knows that, given the way the world works, it’s wise to embrace sorrow and woe.
  • Still, you can’t embrace woe too much or it will drive you crazy.

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