Chapters 87, 88, 89, and 90
Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada”
The Pequod leaves the Indian Ocean, moving towards the China Sea where whales are often seen in schools, what Ishmael calls, “The Grand Armada.” The ship spots sperm whales and gives chase, but pursuing them are some fierce Malaysian tribesmen. The Pequod leaves the Malays behind, but the whales outstrip them, and then, they suddenly stop.
When the boats are lowered, Ishmael’s boat hits a whale with a harpoon. The struck whale leads them into the middle of a pod of whales who swim frantically in great concentric circles. And finally they see why, what it is they protect: the cows and calves in the middle of “an enchanted calm.”
The whales seem so domesticated here that Queequeg pats them and Starbuck scratches their backs. They see into the sacred heart of the whale world: “We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep” (87. 385). This peace is disturbed by the commotion of the hunt and wounded whales. The crew get back with only one whale.
Chapter 88, “Schools and Schoolmasters”
The chief bull of a herd is called the schoolmaster. There is one who protects the cows and calves and another who teaches a herd of young bulls how to survive.
Chapter 89, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish”
When a whale is harpooned but not caught, it is called a “loose-fish” and is fair game to whoever catches it. A “fast-fish” is one secured by a boat, and thus owned.
Chapter 90, “Heads or Tails”
According to English law, the head of a whale captured near the shore of England belongs to the king, and the tail to the queen, but where does one leave off and the other begin on a whale?
Analysis Chapters 87, 88, 89, and 90
The beautiful vision of the center of the whale school with its “amours of the deep” shows a benign universe with humans petting whales and for once, seeing into the heart of their secrets. This is a momentary revelation but offers Ishmael an intuition of his own peaceful center of “mute calm” (87. 385). This moment of blessed union between whale and man is the only place in the novel where they co-exist in peace and understanding, and only a few moments later there is turmoil, due to the wounded whales thrashing about with harpoons in them. The moment is offered for contrast, perhaps to make us question the view of whale as monster, but it is not sustained for long.
Melville compares “loose fish” to the America of 1492, captured by Columbus. (This may not be fair to Native Americans who might say the fish of America was already “fast”). He compares the reader to both a “fast” fish and a “loose” fish, bringing up the point again that we are all, both free and destined.