Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 53: The Gam

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 53: The Gam

  • Ishmael, or possibly our Melvillean narrator, takes some time out to explain how strange it is that the Pequod and the Goney didn’t interact more.
  • Ahab’s excuse for not boarding the other ship was the weather, but even if the weather had been great, Ishmael suspects that he wouldn’t have been interested in exchanging any news with them except news of the white whale.
  • Usually, when two whaling ships meet, they exchange information—the ship that’s just set out tells the ship that’s returning all the news from home, and the ship that’s returning tells the new ship about what the whaling has been like this season. Sometimes they even have letters for one another.
  • Even when the ships come from different countries, they still socialize as long as they speak some common language—although when English and American ships meet, there’s some national pride and snobbery.
  • In contrast to the interaction between whaling ships, which is quite matey, other types of ships are more standoffish: merchant ships ignore each other, warships interact with rituals and ceremonies and military discipline, slave ships hurry away from one another, and pirate ships don’t meet because they don’t like to observe how villainous their business is.
  • Whaling ships, however, usually have a "Gam" when they meet—something nobody but whalemen has even heard of.
  • During a Gam, both captains go on board one ship and both first mates on the other, and the ships exchange men so that they can all socialize. It’s like a foreign exchange program for seamen (though they all go back to their own ships at the end).
  • The other strange thing about a Gam is that, because the boatload of exchangees is so full, the captain has nowhere to sit and has to balance standing up in the boat the whole time, which is incredibly difficult. But he can’t be seen to hold on to anything because it would be undignified.
  • Of course, occasionally the boat rocks so hard that he must grab something—even if it’s the hair of a nearby rowing sailor.

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