Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

  • We move back to Ishmael’s perspective. Ishmael’s first experience as lookout (for whales or for anything else) on the mast-head comes during the nice weather further south.
  • Most American whaling ships, Ishmael explains, man the mast-heads from the time they leave port until every hold, jar, and bottle is full of whale.
  • Ishmael compares standing on the mast-head to standing on top of a renowned monument and to famous heroes occupying pillars—e.g., the pyramids, which he suggests were used for astronomy; the pillar-dwelling hermit St. Stylites; and generals and heroes like Napoleon, George Washington, and Admiral Nelson, who are now statues overlooking wide expanses from their pillars.
  • Ishmael excuses his comparison between land and sea pillars by describing whalemen's lookout towers on land that let ships know when it’s safe to head out.
  • Ishmael describes a shift on top of the mast-head as incredibly relaxing—you’re just hanging out a few hundred feet in the air, not reading any disturbing news, not getting anxious about anything, just feeling yourself move across the sea. You don’t even wonder about dinner, because everyone has the same thing all the time.
  • Of course, the problem is that there isn’t anything comfortable to stand or sit on; usually you’re perched on the cross-trees, two thin pieces of wood nailed to the mast, and you’re pretty cold.
  • On Greenland whalers, the lookouts have crow’s-nests, which are little tent or pulpit sort of things to sit in that hold your stuff and protect you a little from the weather, but they don’t have these on the southern whaling ships.
  • Ishmael thinks the best part of the crow’s-nest would be the ability to keep a flask of liquor in it.
  • Ishmael finds being on mast-head duty relaxing, but that’s mostly because he spends more time thinking up there and less time worrying about the things he supposed to be looking for.
  • He advises people who own whaling ships not to hire young men who look romantic or philosophic, because they’ll be terrible lookouts.
  • These types of young men will be more capable of feeling their identities dissolve into the natural world in a kind of ecstatic spiritual experience than they will to spot the whales they’ve been hired to find.
  • One problem with this transcendent encounter between man and nature? Is that this feeling might make a guy forget to hold on to the mast, and he could fall into the sea and drown.

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