Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 81: The Pequod meets the Virgin

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 81: The Pequod meets the Virgin

  • The Pequod encounters a German whaling ship, the Jungfrau (which translates as "Virgin"), commanded by Captain Derick De Deer.
  • Captain De Deer comes aboard the Pequod with an oilcan in hand, begging for some sperm oil.
  • He says that his ship has completely run out of the oil it brought with it from harbor, and they haven’t found any whales yet to replenish their oil supplies. The Jungfrau is completely clean, totally empty... a real whaling virgin.
  • Captain Derick goes back to his own ship, but before he manages to get back on board, the lookouts on both ships cry out that they’ve spotted whales. Both ships launch their boats, and the German boats have a serious head start.
  • The group of whales—there are eight—start fleeing the vicinity.
  • Trailing the main pod is a huge old whale missing a fin on one side, which can’t keep up with the others.
  • All the German boats are following this old whale, since the other whales are moving almost too fast to catch and the enormous whale is the best target anyway.
  • The Pequod’s boats overtake all the German boats except Captain De Deer’s.
  • The Captain looks back over his shoulder at them, shaking the can they filled with oil for him and mocking them with a grin, which pisses off all the Nantucketers.
  • Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask urge their rowers to move faster.
  • Captain De Deer throws his lamp-feeder back toward the Nantucket boats, trying to lighten his own boat and slow down his rivals.
  • The Nantucket boats pull nearly even with the German ones. One of the German rowers accidentally catches a crab with his oar (which means he screws up and gets it stuck in the water for a moment), which slows him down. The mates from the Pequod pull even.
  • Ishmael feels many different things as he watches the massive old whale trying to run from them, including pity for its fear and suffering and awe at its mass and strength.
  • Captain De Deer orders his harpooneer to throw his dart at the whale, but as the German harpooneer stands up, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo all leap up and throw their own harpoons. All three strike the whale.
  • In the chaos that follows, the Nantucket boats slam into the German one, and Captain De Deer and his harpooneer are thrown into the water.
  • The whale sounds (dives), and each of the boats is strained by the rope going down into the water. All the harpoons stick fast in the whale and everyone waits while, completely undetectably from above, the whale exhausts itself underwater.
  • Suddenly the lines shake in the water as the whale starts to rise. The men haul the ropes in and the whale breaks the surface of the ocean nearby, exhausted.
  • The boats draw closer to the whale, darting lances into him and creating new wounds.
  • Flask notices a discolored swelling on one side of the whale, obviously an old infected wound of some kind.
  • Before Starbuck—"humane Starbuck"—can stop him, Flask darts his lance into this old wound (81.39). The whale heads angrily for Flask’s boat, showering everyone with gore, before it rolls over and dies.
  • The Pequod sails over to the boats.
  • Meanwhile, Starbuck arranges for a series of lines from all three boats to be tied to the huge whale to keep it afloat.
  • When they first cut into the whale, they find a whole harpoon in the old wound, but plenty of whales have harpoons stuck in them, so the infection was probably caused by something else.
  • They also find a stone lance, possibly very old.
  • The huge whale’s carcass keeps sinking and starts to pull the ship over. Starbuck is reluctant to let it go, but it pulls the ship to such a steep angle that they have to cut it loose as it snaps the chains they’re using to hold it up.
  • Ishmael explains that the sinking of slaughtered whales is something that only happens occasionally, but does happen sometimes for reasons they don’t really understand. It happens more to other kinds of whales, though; sperm whales usually float.
  • After the carcass sinks, the Jungfrau lowers its boats in pursuit of another whale spout, but the men on the Pequod can tell it’s just the spout of a Fin-Back, not a sperm whale, so they let the Jungfrau go unchallenged.

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