“The Sphinx” is another chapter in which Ishmael gives us information that causes us to retrace our steps through the previous chapters and reimagine things. Ishmael reveals that before the whale’s body is stripped of its blubber, the whale has been beheaded and the head has been hung from the side of the ship. Ahab addresses a soliloquy to the head, an apostrophe in which he contemplates the mysteries that the whale’s eyes have seen. If only the head could speak!
In calling the chapter “The Sphinx,” Ishmael not only continues the Egyptian motif of the previous chapter, but also likens Ahab to the ancient Greek tragic hero Oedipus, who came to rule Thebes by solving the riddle of the sphinx. But unlike Oedipus, Ahab cannot solve the riddles that are embodied by the whale’s head. Ahab is interrupted when a ship is sighted “three points on the starboard bow,” and he ends his monologue with what strikes me as an intertextual reference to Emerson’s Nature. I said two days ago, that Ishmael seems to disagree with Emerson’s idea that