MOBY DICK Ch 85,86,88

By: Megan Alberse, Bailey Ernst, and Alexa Ramirez

Chapter 85

  • “That for six thousand years—and no one knows how many millions of ages before—the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea, and sprinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep, as with so many sprinkling or mistifying pots;”
  • Ishmael thinks it’s surprising that, even though whales have been spouting and men have been watching them spout for numerous amount of years, nobody really knows whether they spout water or air. He proposes to look into the matter.
  • With an attempt at scientific precision, Ishmael goes in depth about whale spout’s. He cannot define exactly what the spout is
  • Ishmael looks into the matter if spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor
  • Ishmael then begins to debate in his mind whether the spout is used for sense of smell or used as an airway. Then he begins to think maybe it is “clogged with two elements”
  • Ishmael then begins to try and understand the anatomy of the sperm whale
  • “ Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.”
  • Ishmael then asks the crew about what comes out of the spout, one of the mates then tell him that a type of acid comes out of the spout that can make a person go blind
  • A crewmate tells Ishmael a story about a man who was too close to the spouts declares that “the skin peeled off from his cheek and arm”
  • The mist that blows out of the whale’s head seems to Ishmael like the steam coming out of the ears of a philosophical genius.
  • So he has to put forward a hypothesis: the spout is nothing but a mist, like the “semi-visible steam”
  • Ishmael is impelled, he considers touching the “great inherent dignity and sublimity of the sperm whale” instead of becoming frightened, he becomes fascinated.
  • “I account him no common, shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed fact that he is never found on soundings, or near shores; all other whales sometimes are. He is both ponderous and profound”
  • He believes that Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, and Dante have a “certain semi-visible steam” just like Moby Dick
  • Ishmael then becomes curious and goes in front of a mirror to see a “curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere” over his head

Chapter 86

Ishmael offers an incredibly detailed description of the muscles and bones of the whale's powerful tail, listing the movements that it can make in various situations. He says that the whale not only swims and fights with his tail, but also uses it for his sense of touch.
Ishmael ends the chapter with an announcement that he cannot describe what he's just described "The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it." Despite his opinion , Ishmael declares, "I know him [the whale] not, and never will."

The whales communicate their feelings through the tail and communicate to the others in their herd through their tail movements

What the tail is used for

“Five great motions are peculiar to it. First, when used as a fin for progression; Second, when used as a mace in battle; Third, in sweeping; Fourth, in lobtailing; Fifth, in peaking flukes.”


Chapter 88

“Now, as the harem of whales is called by the fishermen a school, so
is the lord and master of that school technically known as the
schoolmaster”


  • Ishmael describes the behavior of whales when they gather in herds. There are two types of whale "schools," divided by gender.
  • The all-female schools, which Ishmael describes as harem-schools, are often accompanied by a single, huge male, much larger than any of the females, which Ishmael calls the "Grand Turk."
  • The harem-school rambles around through different waters, and the Grand Turk protects the females from any obnoxious young male whales who think he’s going to mate with one of them.


“Should any unwarrantably pert young Leviathan coming that way,
presume to draw confidentially close to one of the ladies, with what
prodigious fury the Bashaw assails him, and chases him away!”


“They fence with their long lower jaws, sometimes locking them
together, and so striving for the supremacy like elks that warringly
interweave their antlers”



  • Sometimes the males seem to duel for love of the females by jawing at each other.
  • The Grand Turk mates with many different females, but doesn’t care at all for his children.
  • Eventually, in extreme old age, the Grand Turk disbands the harem entirely and becomes a lone whale.
  • At this stage in the Grand Turk’s life, the fishermen don’t hunt him much, because his oil isn’t plentiful enough to make it worth the trouble.
  • The all-male schools of young whales are much more violent and hot-headed and very dangerous for whaling ships to encounter.
  • The other difference between the schools is how they behave when one of them is attacked – the males abandon their fellows to their fates, while the females cluster so closely around an injured schoolmate that they often become victims, too.

What is the irony of chapter 85?

Why does Ishmael go into such great detail about the whale's tail?

Do you see any similarities between how whale herds act and how groups of people act?