Chapter 96 The Try-Works

        The American whaleship is outfitted with a brick fireplace or furnace built on its deck between the foremast and mainmast. Within the brickwork are situated two very large kettles -- try-pots, as they are called. This construct is called the try-works, because the operation it performs is called trying-out the whale's blubber, which amounts to boiling the oil out of it. In some cases, this try-works is broken down and thrown overboard after the hold is full of whale oil (the kettles are kept, of course). One may identify a whaleship -- nowadays it amounts to identifying a model -- by this brickwork on deck, together with the five or so whaleboats suspended from davits (cranes) -- all quite visible.

        Melville tells us that the insides of the try-pots are kept clean and polished. But never satisfied with dull and matter-of-fact description, he shows off his school-masterly knowledge of mathematical theorems. "It was in the left-hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any one point in precisely the same time." Showing off again, eh, Mr. Melville?

        We learn that the try works is temporarily affixed to the deck by "iron knees", and that a reservoir of water under the bricks keeps the heat from burning the wood of the deck. The first fire is fed with wood, but after the trying-out is under way, tried-out scraps of blubber are used for fuel.

        "Like a plethoric [full of blood] burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope [hater of human kind], once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for a time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgement; it is an argument for the pit." [The reader will remember that in Chapter 92 Ambergris, we quoted this pronouncement by Melville: "The truth is that living or dead, if but decently treated, whales as a species are by no means creatures of ill odor; nor can whalemen be recognized by the nose." The operative phrase here is "if but decently treated", meaning evidently if not thrown in the fire and burned.]

        The rest of this chapter is an oneiric, i.e. dreamlike, monologue -- a soliloquy brought on by the flames from the the try-works as Ishmael steers the Pequod at night. "The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. The harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers. As the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night -- then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire and a burning corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniacal commander's soul."

        Somehow Ishmael is hypnotized by the flames and comes-to at the helm, but facing the stern and not the bow. He nearly causes the ship to capsize, but luckily he prevents it. The memory of this evokes a moral: "Look not too long in the face of fire, O Man. Never dream with thy hand at the helm." He goes on and on, still hallucinating, still fulminating . . .