Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Ishmael reports that, for the next few days, Bildad and Peleg orchestrated the packing of the ship for a three years’ journey—the typical amount of time a whaling vessel is on the high seas. Although some things, like food, utensils, and similar provisions, can be picked up at other ports along the way, most whaling implements (including harpoons) are specialized and must be packed with care before the voyage begins. Ishmael notes that Bildad’s sister, named Aunt Charity, helps to pack the boat for the journey, bringing along pickles, flannel, and other goods. Ishmael closes the chapter by stating that Bildad and Peleg never allowed Ishmael to see Ahab before the ship set sail, and although this should have worried Ishmael at the time, he thought very little of it, assuming Ahab had good reason for staying away from the ship until it pushed off.
Melville and Ishmael adore chapters like these, in which they can list all the items one finds on a ship—just as Ishmael identifies many different types of whales, many different types of native societies, and other long lists of people and things throughout the novel, in chapter-length digressions. Here, Ishmael’s purpose seems to be rather simple: to prove to the reader just how much needs to go onto a boat in order to allow dozens of men to survive, in at least marginal comfort, for a number of years, without prolonged access to ports of call along the way.
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