Cetology of Moby-Dick

The cetology of Moby-Dick is the zoological classification and study of the properties of whales (i.e. cetology) introduced by U.S. author Herman Melville in his 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Although the novel is a work of fiction, Melville included sequences of chapters concerned largely with an objective discussion of the properties of whales. The observations, voiced through the narrator Ishmael, were largely drawn from Melville's own first-hand experiences in whaling in the 1840s and include observations of various species from the order of Cetacea. The chapters in which Melville discusses whales in a scientific manner lie outside the main story of Captain Ahab and the Pequod, and they are often omitted in abridged versions of the novel.


Melville's observations are not a complete scientific study, even by standards of the day. Nevertheless, because of the general lack of knowledge about whales in the middle 19th century, the taxonomy in the novel provides a glimpse of the knowledge of whales by the whaling fleet and naturalists of the era.

Melville somewhat famously asserts in the novel that the whale is a "spouting fish with a horizontal tail." His use of the word "fish" here, however, is not meant a denial of the mammalian characteristics of the order Cetacea, but rather simply as an ad hoc definition as an animal that dwells in the sea. He attempts a taxonomy of whales largely based on size, based on his assertion that other characteristics, such as the existence of a hump or baleen, make the classification too confusing. Borrowing an analogy from publishing and bookbinding, he divides whales into three "books", called the Folio Whale (largest), Octavo Whale, and the Duodecimo Whale (smaller), represented respectively by the sperm whale, the orca (which he calls the grampus), and the porpoise. Each such book is then divided into "chapters" representing a separate species.

By the current taxonomy of Cetacea, Melville's classification is not only inaccurate and anachronistic but incomplete as well, presenting only a fraction of the nearly eighty species of Cetaceans known today. In the case of some species, in particular the blue whale (which Melville calls the "sulphur-bottom whale") very little was known at the time. The classification is thus heavily weighted toward whales hunted for oil and other uses, and presents a picture of the common knowledge of whales at the time of the novel. Since Melville presents the study within a fictional context, voiced by a fictional character in the narrative, its is arguable whether or not Melville intended the classification as a serious scientific contribution. Moreover, Melville includes the larger members of the Cetaceans, as well as the porpoises, but he leaves out dolphins, which were known to Antiquity. It is quite possible that in the case of the Duodecimo whales (porpoises), Melville has unknowingly combined many disparate species into a single "chapter".

Melville's classification

The following is the classification introduced by Melville in Chapter XXXII, with the spellings and alternative names mentioned by Melville. He does not introduce the Latin scientific names, however, which are provided here as a cross-reference to the modern taxonomy. The Roman numerals shown here are those used by Melville for each "book" and "chapter".

I. The Folio Whale

These are the whales of the largest size.

  • I. Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), the most important prey of Nantucket whaling fleet, which operated principally in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. The notorious fictional white whale Moby Dick in the novel is of this species, and is based on the real-life sperm whale Mocha Dick in the South Pacific in the 1840s. Because of lack of observations of the blue whale at that time, Melville asserts inaccurately that the sperm whale is the largest creature on Earth.
  • II. Right whale (several species of the genus Eubalaena of the family Balaenidae), also known simply as the Whale, the Greenland whale, the Black whale, the Great whale. Melville claims this whale was the first to be regularly hunted by human beings and is famously known for providing baleen, which was also known as "whalebone" at the time. The oil of this whale was commercially known as "whale oil" and was of inferior grade to that of the sperm whale. During the middle 19th century, it was the principal prey of the whaling fleets of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which operated largely in the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean.
  • III. Fin-back whale (Balaenoptera physalus), also called the Tall-Spout and Long-John. According to Melville, the whale had been seen in almost every part of the oceans and was commonly observed by passengers crossing the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and New York City.
  • IV. Hump-back whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Melville states that this species is seen frequently on the northern coast of the United States, where it is frequently captured and towed back to harbor. He compares the distinctive hump on its back to the pack of peddlar. Its oil is not very valuable. "He is the most gamesome of species and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any of other of them."
  • V. Razor-back whale (probably Balaenoptera physalus, identical to the Fin-back). The name "Razorback whale" is now used as a synonym for the finback. Melville includes the Razor-back as a separate "chapter", but states (in the voice of Ishmael) that he has only observed him at a distance off Cape Horn and knows little about this species. He knows little about this species, "nor does anyone else."
  • VI. Sulphur-bottom whale (Balaenoptera musculus, commonly known today as the Blue whale). This species was elusive in Melville's day and he states he has observed it only from a distance in the southern seas. Knowledge of the whale among the Nantucket whaling fleet is sparse. He thus provides an incomplete description, mentioning the prominent feature of its "brimstone belly". According to Melville the whale is never chased, since "he would run away with rope-walks of line."

II. The Octavo Whale

These are the whales of middle size.

  • I. Grampus (Orcinus orca commonly known as the orca or killer whale). Melville states that this species is known its loud blowing and is well known among whalemen. According to Melville, it swims in herds and is never regularly hunted, although it has considerable oil that is good for producing light. He states that the appearance of the grampus is often taken by whalemen to presage the appearance of the sperm whale.
  • II. Black Fish whale (one or both species of the genus Globicephala, known today as the Pilot whale). Melville calls him the Hyena whale, based on its appearance, stating "the inner angles of his lips are curved upwards, he carries an everlasting Mephistophelian grin on his face." He states that the whale is found in all latitudes, and has a peculiar fin which appears similar to a Roman nose. The whale is often hunted by Nantucket whalers when sperm whales are not available, primarily to keep up the ship's own supply of oil. Although it has thin blubber, a single whale can yield up to thirty gallons of oil.
  • III. Narwhal or Nostril whale (Monodon monoceros). Melville writes at length about this whale, which at the time was a well-known denizen of the polar seas. He describes the horn of the narwhal and speculates on its purpose. According to Melville, it is also known as the Tusked whale, Horned whale, and the Unicorn whale. In ancient days the horn was used as an antidote for poison. He recounts that Martin Frobisher presented a narwhal horn to Elizabeth I upon returning from the Canadian Arctic. The oil of the narwhal is "very superior, clear and fine; but there is little of it, and he is seldom hunted."
  • IV. Killer whale (possibly the orca or pseudorca crassidens, the false killer whale). Melville states that the whale is little known both by the Nantucket whaling community and by naturalists. Ishmael claims to have seen him from a distance, stating that it is approximately the size of the grampus. It is known to seize the large whales by the lip, hanging there "like a leech, till the mighty brute is worried to death." It is never hunted and the type of oil it contains is unknown to the narrator. Melville somewhat dislikes the name, stating that "we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks alike."
  • V. Thrasher whale (possibly identical to the orca, mistaken as a separate species in the North Atlantic). Melville states that little known of the whale, but it has been observed to mount the Folio whale's back as it swims, working its way upwards by flogging the larger whale with its tale.

III. The Duodecimo Whale

These are the species of the smallest size, which Melville generically calls porpoises.

  • I. Huzza porpoise (harbor porpoise Phocoena phocoena). The identification arises from Melville's statement that this is the "common porpoise found all over the globe". Melville's name is completely invented here, based on the fact that the "he always swims in hilarious shoals...their appearance is generally hailed with delight by the mariner...They are accounted a lucky omen." He states that a well-fed specimen /will yield one gallon of good oil, but that the "fine and delicate fluid extracted from his jaws is exceedingly valuable" and is used by jewellers and watchmakers. The meat is good eating.
  • II. Algerine porpoise. Melville states that this species is found only in the Pacific Ocean and is slightly larger than the "Huzza porpoise." Ishmael states that the species is ferocious when attacked, and that although he has lowered for this species many times, he has yet to see this species captured. It is unclear what species Melville meant here.
  • III. Mealy-mouthed porpoise (Lissodelphis borealis, the Right whale dolphin). Melville also calls this the Right-whale porpoise, since it is often found in the vicinity of the Right whale. According to Melville, it is found only in the Pacific Ocean.

Beyond the Duodecimo

Melville also lists "a rabble of uncertain, fugitive half-fabulous whales" of which he knew only by name and not experience. These were the Bottlenose Whale, Junk Whale, Pudding-Headed Whale, Cape Whale, Leading Whale, Cannon Whale, Scragg Whale, Coppered Whale, Elephant Whale, Iceberg Whale, Quog Whale, and Blue Whale. Their lack of description makes it difficult to know exactly which taxonomically correct whales these names might refer, if any. He notes that should any of them be caught and classified they could be easily incorporated into his system.

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