As the Pequod approaches the equatorial fishing ground, the sailors think that they hear mermaids or ghosts wailing. The Manxman says that these are the voices of the newly drowned men in the sea. Ahab laughs at this nonsense, telling the men that they have passed a seal colony in the night. Many of the men are superstitious about seals, though, and Ahab’s explanation helps little. The next morning, one of the Pequod’s crew falls from a masthead. The life buoy that is thrown in after him is old and dried out, and it fills with water and sinks. The man drowns. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask decide to replace the life buoy with Queequeg’s coffin.
This chapter is written in the form of a theatrical dialogue followed by a long soliloquy from Ahab. The carpenter grumbles about having to transform the coffin into a buoy. Ahab, aware of the irony of the substitution, calls the carpenter “unprincipled as the gods” for going through with it. He calls Pip to him to discuss the “wondrous philosophies” of the situation: since Pip’s experience in the ocean, the two have been close companions.
The Pequod, still looking for Moby Dick, encounters the Rachel. Captain Gardiner of the Rachel, after affirming that he has indeed seen Moby Dick, climbs aboard Ahab’s ship and begs Ahab to help him find his son, whose whale boat was lost in the chase after the White Whale. Ahab refuses, not wanting to waste time that could be used in pursuit of Moby Dick.
Now that Ahab knows that Moby Dick is near, he spends much of his time walking the decks. One night, Pip tries to follow him, telling Ahab that he won’t abandon him. Ahab tells Pip to stay in the captain’s cabin, lest Pip’s insanity cause Ahab’s compassion for the boy to distract him from his lust for revenge.
Ahab, shadowed everywhere by Fedallah, remains on deck, ever watchful. The crew falls into a routine of stifled silence. This continuous watch sharpens Ahab’s obsession, and he decides that he must be the first to sight the whale. He asks Starbuck to help him get up the main-mast and watch his rope. While Ahab is up there, a black hawk steals his hat, which Ishmael considers a bad omen.
The Pequod then runs into the miserably misnamed Delight, which has previously encountered Moby Dick, with the unpleasant result of a gutted whale boat and dead men. As the Pequod goes by, the Delight drops a corpse in the water. The Delight’s crew remarks upon the coffin life buoy at the Pequod’s stern: to them, it is clear that the coffin is a symbol of doom.
Ahab and Starbuck exchange stories about their wives and children, and Ahab talks sadly about his wearying quest for Moby Dick. He calls himself a fool and thinks himself pathetic. Starbuck suggests that he give up the chase, but Ahab doubts that he can stop, feeling impelled by fate. As Ahab debates this profound dilemma, Starbuck steals away in despair. When Ahab goes to the other side of the deck to gaze into the water, Fedallah, too, looks over the rail.
This set of chapters prepares the reader and the Pequod’s crew for the final confrontation with Moby Dick. The atmosphere of doom and the feelings of inevitability grow stronger as the narrative progresses. The sailors, and probably the reader as well, are confused as to which events represent the fulfillment of prophecies of catastrophe and which are in themselves prophecies of disasters to come. The operation of fate and causality is thus unclear, and the justification for Ahab’s quest comes to seem strained, as it becomes increasingly apparent, especially in the episodes with the Rachel and the Delight, that an encounter with Moby Dick is both fated and sure to be fatal. Given that the conclusion seems inevitable, events and objects such as the Pequod’s “baptism” as it is splashed by the corpse thrown from the Delight, or the coffin attached to the Pequod’s stern, take on significance as symbols rather than as causes.
Much has changed aboard the Pequod since the beginning of its voyage; most notable is that its power structure has been subverted. Pip, formerly a minor character, is now sitting “in the ship’s full middle.” Ahab, in fact, tells Pip to sit in his chair as if Pip “were the captain.” Pip finds it strange that “a black boy [should play] host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!” He knows that people like him—the young, the black—typically serve older white men like Ahab. It is not clear whether Ahab is in complete control anymore. He asks himself:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?
In this self-conscious moment, a rare instance of questioning his obsession, Ahab wonders about his free will and his identity. He understands both the folly of his quest and the fact that he is compelled to pursue it by some force that he cannot overcome.