Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Chapter 83 Summary & Analysis

Ishmael addresses the Biblical story of Jonah, pointing out some contemporary criticisms of the veracity of the tale. First, if the whale is a right whale, as is claimed to be the case, then Jonah could not live in his stomach, only in his mouth. To this, others counter that perhaps Jonah “took refuge in a dead whale,” not necessarily a live one. The criticism of the tale Ishmael finds most convincing, however, is the idea that the whale was able to swim a vast distance—hundreds of miles—and regurgitate Jonah on a foreign shore in only three days. Ishmael has trouble believing this part of the account, but he notes that some groups in Turkey, an “enlightened” place, take the story for fact, and have devoted a temple to it.
A return to the story of Jonah. Like Father Mapple, Ishmael wishes to examine this story—one of the most famous in the Bible—from a scientific, 19th-century perspective. Ishmael’s attempt to read the Bible in light of contemporary attitudes was common of the time period, as scholars throughout the west also hoped to find evidence of Noah’s Ark in Turkey, or of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. Again this is an example of different sorts of knowledge not agreeing in their views of whales, of whales somehow slipping through the fingers of these different ways of seeing them. At the same time, this chapter is also an example of the ways that readers can miss the significance or meaning of a story by focusing too thoroughly on details, whether pragmatic or theological.
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