Chapter 72 , “The Monkey-Rope”
The monkey-rope is a lifeline between Ishmael on the deck and Queequeg below on the whale’s carcass, half submerged, holding it steady while the blubber is peeled. Sharks are all around Queequeg’s feet, so the other harpooners throw darts to kill them. Queequeg’s precarious position is like life. He is dangling on a belt, trusting his life to his friend; he is beset by enemy sharks; and his friends are shooting darts too close to him.
Chapter 73, “Stubb and Flask Kill A Right Whale and Then Have a Talk over Him”
Inexplicably, Ahab sends Stubb and Flask out to kill a right whale (the name for another whale species), though its oil cannot be used. Flask says it is to balance the other side of the ship, for no ship will sink, with a sperm whale on one side, and a right whale on the other. The two mates then discuss Ahab’s mysterious harpooner, Fedallah, wondering if he is trying to harm Ahab. They vow to keep a watch on him.
Analysis Chapters 72 and 73
The monkey-rope becomes another symbol of the bond between Queequeg and Ishmael. Ishmael uses the marriage metaphor again: “we too, for the time, were wedded” (72. 317). Their lives depend on each other, and Ishmael notes, that in such a situation, his free will is suspended, for another’s wrong move could be his end.
Stubb and Flash wonder about Fedallah, calling him “the devil in disguise” (73. 323), as though he is trying to make a trade with Ahab’s soul for Moby Dick. This recalls the influence that Gabriel had on Cpt. Mayhew on the Jereboam. Neither captain seems fully in charge of his own ship.
The Pequod’s leaning to one side with the head of the sperm whale is corrected by attaching the head of the right whale on the other. This is the way “some minds for ever keep trimming boat” (73. 325), hoisting between the philosophies of Locke and Kant, says Ishmael. He refers to two powerful philosophies of the century: empiricism and transcendental idealism. The novel itself seesaws between these two ways of seeing the whale—as a sensory object (the facts of whaling) or as a transcendent mystery (the myth of Moby Dick).
John Locke said the mind was a blank slate and acquires knowledge through the senses. It associates qualities like evil with the whale because of an unpleasant experience, like getting a leg ripped off. If one followed that up with a pleasant experience, the whale might change in the mind to something positive.
Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, said although it is true, we can never know the real whale because our knowledge of the universe is limited by our sensory and mental experience, yet our reason strives for higher and higher explanations of the mystery and unity behind phenomena. The man of imagination and reason looks for the unconditioned ground, for God and the universal moral law.
Ahab might fall under both philosophies according to Ishmael, for his association of evil with the whale could be attributed to his misfortune. Yet Ahab, however mad he may be, is a seeker after higher truth, and that is his nobility. He is not satisfied with sensory knowledge. He is insatiable for explanations and pushes the envelope (thus his many reflections and soliloquies); he must have a spiritual answer (what is behind “the pasteboard mask”?), like Ishmael himself, who connects every fact to some larger possible meaning.