The somber Pequod, still on the lookout for Moby Dick, encounters the Bachelor, a festive Nantucket whaler on its way home with a full cargo. The captain of the Bachelor, saying that he has heard stories of the White Whale but doesn’t believe them, invites Ahab and the crew to join his party. Ahab declines, and the two ships go their separate ways as Ahab contemplates a vial of Nantucket sand that he has been carrying in his pocket.
The next day, the Pequod kills several whales, and the way that one dying whale turns toward the sun inspires Ahab to speak to it in wondrous tones. He notes that the whale, like man, worships the sun’s warmth. Ahab then hails the sea, calling its waves his “foster-brothers.”
While keeping a night vigil over a whale that was too far away to take back to the ship immediately, Ahab hears from Fedallah the prophecy of his death. Before Ahab can die, he must see two hearses, one “not made by mortal hands” and one made of wood from America. Since it is unlikely that a hearse would be seen at sea, Ahab believes that he will not be killed on this voyage. Fedallah also tells him that he, Fedallah, will die before Ahab, and that only hemp can kill the captain. Ahab takes the latter prophecy to mean that he will be hanged, and again thinks his death unlikely to happen at sea.
Back on the ship, Ahab holds up a quadrant, an instrument that gauges the position of the sun, to determine the ship’s latitude. Deciding that it doesn’t give him the information that he wants, he tramples it underfoot. He orders the ship to change direction. Starbuck finds Ahab’s ambitions petty and thinks that his behavior will end in mediocrity and failure. Stubb, on the other hand, respects Ahab for his willingness to “live in the game, and die in it!”
The next day, the Pequod is caught in a typhoon, and one of the harpoon boats is destroyed. The weird weather makes white flames appear at the top of the three masts, but Ahab refuses to let the crew put up lightning rods to draw away the danger. While Ahab marvels at the ship’s three masts lit up like three spermaceti candles, hailing them as good omens and signs of his own power, Starbuck sees them as a warning against continuing the quest for Moby Dick. When Starbuck sees Ahab’s harpoon also flickering with fire, he interprets it as a sign that God opposes Ahab. Ahab, however, grasps the harpoon and says, in front of a frightened crew, that there is nothing to fear in the enterprise that binds them all together. He blows out the flame to “blow out the last fear.”
In the next chapter, Starbuck questions Ahab’s judgment again, this time concerning the sails during the storm. Starbuck wants to take one of them down, but Ahab says that they should just lash it tighter. He complains that his first mate seems to think him incompetent.
Stubb and Flask have their own conversation about the storm and Ahab’s behavior. Stubb dominates the conversation and insists that this journey is no more dangerous than any other, even though it seems as if Ahab is putting them in extreme danger.
Suspended above the men on the main-top-sail yard, Tashtego thinks to himself that sailors care more about rum than about the storm.
When the storm finally dies down, Starbuck goes below to report to Ahab. On the way to the cabin, he sees a row of muskets, including the very one that Ahab had leveled at him earlier. Angry about Ahab’s reckless and selfish behavior, he debates with himself about whether he ought to kill his captain. He decides that he cannot kill Ahab in his sleep and returns to the deck, asking Stubb to wake Ahab.
When Ahab is on deck the next day, he realizes that the storm has thrown off the compasses. He then pronounces himself “lord over the level loadstone yet” and makes his own needle. Here Ishmael notes that “[i]n this fiery eye of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.”
With all of the other orienting devices out of order, Ahab decides to pull out the seldom-used log and line, a device used to measure a ship’s speed. Because of heat and moisture, the line breaks, and Ahab realizes that he now has none of his original navigational devices. He calls for Pip to help him, but Pip answers with nonsense. Ahab, touched by Pip’s crazy speeches, says that his cabin will now be Pip’s, because the boy touches his “inmost center.”
Ishmael fades in and out of his own narration in these chapters, as Ahab’s determination and control over the ship increase. Many of these chapters, in fact, are made up entirely of soliloquies and asides, for which it seems unlikely that Ishmael would have been an audience. The events that occur in these chapters also reflect Ahab’s increasing power over the ship. First Ahab throws away the quadrant. He then refuses to put up the lightning rods, makes his own compass, and breaks the log and line. These devices are the only things that keep the Pequod on an objective, standard course. The loss of the ship’s compass is probably most significant—its replacement with one of Ahab’s own manufacture suggests that the Pequod’s path will now be dictated not by logic, skill, or convention but solely by Ahab’s will.
Ahab has become so self-confident that he alters the prophecy delivered by Fedallah, his own private prophet, in order to make it conform to his own vision. For every part of Fedallah’s prophecy, Ahab finds a reason that it will not apply to him. He assumes, for instance, that Fedallah’s assertion that only hemp can cause Ahab’s death means that he is to be hung. Ahab ignores the fact that he is on a ship hung with ropes, which are used in every aspect of sailing and whaling. Ishmael even frequently notes the sort of fatal accidents involving rope that can occur. Ahab’s willful misreading of Fedallah’s words demonstrates his hubris, or arrogant overconfidence.
Ahab acquires an unexpected double in the person of Pip. Pip and Ahab complement each other in many ways: Ahab is white, while Pip is black; Ahab is at the center of the intrigue, while Pip is marginal; Ahab is atop the shipboard hierarchy, while Pip is at the bottom; Ahab is old and wise, while Pip is young and knows nothing about whaling technique. Most important, however, Ahab seems to possess a modicum of sanity, while Pip seems to have crossed the line into insanity. Despite these differences, both see the world slightly aslant and feel alienated from the majority of the men on the ship. Their situation, as Pip explains it, creates between them a “man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by.” Pip pulls at the deeply buried remnants of Ahab’s humanity, and Ahab takes Pip almost as a son.
A crucial difference between Pip and Ahab is that Pip’s insanity results from his coming to understand his own insignificance, both as a black man in white America and as one tiny human in the vast ocean. Ahab, on the other hand, feels himself to have been singled out by, rather than lost in, the vastness of the universe. Pip and Ahab thus represent two opposite psychological extremes.
The conflict between Starbuck and Ahab intensifies in these chapters as Starbuck questions the captain in front of the crew. The two men view the world in different ways, and their differences bring them into collision. Starbuck thinks about home with tenderness, considers the crew, and reasons rather than emotes. His indecision over whether to kill the sleeping Ahab and his thinking aloud recall the scene in Hamlet in which Hamlet vacillates about whether to kill Claudius, his father’s murderer, while Claudius is praying.