Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Chapter 90 Summary & Analysis

Ishmael tells another story to illustrate the unfairness of the “fast and loose” system in whaling. Near Cinque Ports, in the South Pacific, a group of English whalers tracked and killed a whale before dragging it to shore. There, they were informed by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an English official, that the whale belonged to the Duke of Wellington, who presided over that island. Although the men caught the fish, the fish itself was “fast” because the Duke had the right to the head of any whales caught in that vicinity. In fact, Ishmael notes, the king in royal English charters had the right to the head of certain whales, and the queen to their tails, since whale-tails could be used to make certain decorative dresses in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Ishmael notes that, although these laws seem comically and deeply unfair, they are merely an extension of a more general principle of legal unfairness, which allows the few to take the well-earned gains of the many.
Here Ishmael uses the laws of fast and loose fish to critique the law itself—on land or at see—to show how the supposedly pure "law" is in fact warped by all sorts of ridiculous historical conventions based on who does and does not already have wealth and power. This is interesting also as previous chapters have begun to make the whales seem more people-like, and whaling therefore as being more murderous and exploitative. Here Ishmael dissects the way the law allows the powerful few to steal from the ordinary many. The novel also seems to suggest that whaling involves the powerful men slaughtering the less powerful whales.
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