Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 51: The Spirit-Spout

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 51: The Spirit-Spout

  • Several weeks go by while the Pequod trolls around in different parts of the ocean.
  • One moonlit night, Fedallah sees a whale spout ahead of the ship in the distance.
  • Fedallah’s been keeping watch at night, even though usually seamen don’t lower the boats or hunt in the dark, whether they sight whales or not.
  • Ahab orders the sails to be set, and the Pequod rushes after the spout.
  • Different symbolic conflicts happen here: the ship seems to be torn between rushing forward after the whale and being lifted up toward heaven by the wind, and Ahab’s walk alternates between a living leg and a dead piece of whalebone.
  • Eventually, the spout stops appearing.
  • Everyone thinks they’ve seen it once, but no more.
  • Several days go by and the sailors have almost forgotten the spout when, suddenly, it appears t and disappears in the middle of the night again like before.
  • This keeps happening—every few nights, they see the spout, but they never actually see the whale, and they never catch up with it before it disappears.
  • Some of the sailors decide, purely due to superstition, the creepiness of the calm weather, and the mysterious evening spout, that this must be Moby Dick.
  • When the Pequod finally turns east (they’ve been heading south in the Atlantic, and now they’re going around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa), the spirit-spout and creepy calmness disappear in stormy weather, but things are still pretty depressing.
  • Sea-ravens land on the ship in droves, as though it were already an abandoned wreck for them to scavenge. The sea is choppy and violent.
  • All they can do is ride out the storm, so Ahab stands silently on the deck staring into the wind, and the crew ride in the waist (the level just below the main deck), tying themselves to the railings to make primitive seatbelts.
  • Starbuck is haunted by Ahab’s behavior, especially one evening, when he goes into the captain’s cabin to look at the barometer. He finds Ahab asleep in his chair with his head thrown back and his closed eyes pointed toward the compass.

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