Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets

  • Tashtego climbs carefully onto the sperm whale’s head and cuts a hole into the case with a spade.
  • Sailors pass him a bucket on a whip, which Tashtego lowers into the hole with a pole and then signals to the sailors to raise.
  • Each time it comes up full of spermaceti and is hauled over to the deck and emptied into a tub.
  • Eventually, Tashtego is lowering the bucket as far as twenty feet into the whale’s head.
  • After several tubs have been filled with spermaceti, Tashtego slips and falls down into the whale’s case.
  • Daggoo climbs onto the head after him.
  • One of the two hooks by which the head is suspended tears out of the whale’s flesh. Everything is now hanging from one hook. Daggoo lowers the bucket, hoping Tashtego will be able to grab it.
  • The last hook gives way and the head falls into the ocean. Daggoo is left clinging to a rope, while Tashtego remains lodged in the head.
  • Queequeg dives into the ocean and rescues Tashtego, bringing him back to the ship. It takes a long time to revive him.
  • Queequeg performs the rescue by using his sword to make a hole in the bottom of the head and then thrusting his arm into it to pull Tashtego out – making sure to grasp him by the head, the way you’re supposed to deliver a baby.
  • Just in case the concern reader objects that, without the spermaceti, the head should have sunk too fast for this rescue, Ishmael explains that the case was still attached to the rest of the head, which, honeycombed with oil less dense than water, kept it afloat longer.
  • Ishmael imagines how dainty and holy it would be to drown inside a whale’s oily head—like drowning in honey.

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