Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 86: The Tail

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 86: The Tail

  • Now Ishmael "celebrate[s]" the whale’s tail (86.1). Hey, everyone’s got their fetish.
  • The first problem, of course, is where the whale’s tail actually begins, considering that its body just tapers until the flukes (fins). Ishmael decides that the beginning of the tail is the point at which the whale is about as thick as a man’s waist.
  • To Ishmael, the tapered tail of the whale is a graceful and compact version of all its strength and power.
  • Ishmael identifies five different ways that whales move their tails: using them as fins to move forward; using them as weapons in a fight (against human beings only − whales fight each other with their heads and jaws); "sweeping," which is using the sense of touch in the tail to search for foreign bodies in the ocean; "lobtailing," which is smacking the water with the tail flat on a playful manner; and "peaking flukes," which is when the whale rises almost entirely out of the water before diving.
  • Ishmael notices that he’s compared the whale’s tail to the elephant’s trunk quite a bit, but he insists that the tail is more dignified.
  • Ishmael laments the inscrutability of the whale’s tail. Sometimes it seems to make meaningful gestures that he can’t interpret, and no matter how much he analyzes different parts of the whale’s anatomy, he’ll never fully understand it.

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