The Pequod leaves Nantucket on a cold Christmas Day. Bildad and Peleg pilot the ship out of port. Ahab still has not appeared on deck. Ishmael finds the start of the voyage disconcerting and is meditating upon his situation when he receives a kick and a scolding from Peleg. The Pequod is soon clear of the harbor and into the open ocean, and Bildad and Peleg take a small boat back to shore as the whaling ship “plunge[s] like fate into the lone Atlantic.”
Ishmael offers a brief portrait of Bulkington, a sailor whom he first meets in New Bedford. Ishmael watches Bulkington steer the Pequod and thinks of him as a restless pioneer, fated to die at sea. Ishmael considers this kind of death infinitely preferable to fading away through cowardice, and, in an imaginary address to Bulkington, declares that the death at sea will transform Bulkington into a god.
Ishmael proceeds to stand up for the whaling profession, arguing that whaling is heroic, economically critical, and has expanded geographical knowledge. He defends the dignity of whaling by pointing to the involvement of noble families in the industry, to the fact that the Bible and other books mention whales, and to the fact that Cetus, the whale, is a constellation in the southern sky. Ishmael closes by declaring that anything worthwhile that he might accomplish can be credited to his time spent on a whaling ship, his “Yale College” and his “Harvard.”
Ishmael adds some speculation to the previous chapter’s “facts.” He reminds the reader that sperm whale oil is used in the coronation of royalty, and suggests that sperm oil has been used to anoint kings because it is the best, purest, and sweetest of oils.
In the first of the two chapters called “Knights and Squires,” we meet the first mate, Starbuck, a pragmatic, reliable Nantucketer. Starbuck believes that it is rational—and necessary—to fear whales, and his reverence for nature inclines him toward superstition. He is characterized by the other officers of the Pequod as “careful,” although this term is relative when used to describe a whaler. Speaking about Starbuck leads Ishmael to reflect upon the dignity of the working man. Ishmael finds evidence of God in even the “meanest mariners” and admits that he will frequently ignore people’s faults to emphasize their “democratic dignity.”
This chapter introduces the rest of the Pequod’s officers. The pipe-smoking second mate, Stubb, a native of Cape Cod, is always cool under pressure and possesses “impious good humor.” The third mate, Flask, a native of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, is a short, stocky fellow with a confrontational attitude and no reverence for the dignity of the whale. He is nicknamed “King-Post” because he resembles the short, square timber known by that name in Arctic whalers. Each mate commands one of the small harpoon boats that are sent out after whales, and each has a “squire,” his harpooner: Queequeg is Starbuck’s harpooner; Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head,” on Martha’s Vineyard, is Stubb’s harpooner; and Daggoo, “a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” from Africa with an imperial bearing, is Flask’s harpooner.
Ishmael notes that few whalers are American-born except the officers, who are almost always American: “the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplies the muscles.” The rest of the crew is also international. But, says Ishmael, all of these “Isolatoes” are “federated along one keel” and unified by their comradeship at sea and shared danger. Ishmael also mentions Pip, a poor black boy from Alabama who beats a tambourine on ship.
As the Pequod ranges further south and the weather improves, Ahab finally appears on deck. Ishmael observes him closely. Ahab appears a strong, willful figure, though his encounter with Moby Dick has scarred him both physically and mentally. In addition to missing a leg, Ahab is marked with a white scar down one side of his face that looks like a lightning strike. Rumor has it that the scar suddenly appeared during some “elemental strife at sea.” Ahab stands watch with his false leg, carved from a whale’s jaw, set into a hole bored into the deck.
Ahab does indeed seem psychologically troubled. He maintains a total dictatorship on board. He is restless and paces the deck, and the striking of his peg leg on the wood echoes throughout the ship. When Stubb complains about Ahab’s pacing, Ahab calls him a dog and advances on him. Stubb retreats. This chapter is short and dramatic, as the stage-direction title implies.
Ahab realizes that smoking no longer soothes him and that the sereneness of the activity doesn’t suit his agitated, willful state of mind. He hurls his pipe overboard and resumes pacing the ship deck.
The next morning, Stubb tells Flask that he dreamed that Ahab kicked him with his ivory leg. An old merman in the dream points out the futility of struggling against Ahab and suggests that it may even be an honor to be kicked by such a man. (The title of this chapter, “Queen Mab,” refers to Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, in which Mercutio explains how Queen Mab, a fairy, brings dreams to sleepers.) As Stubb finishes telling of his dream, Ahab shouts at the crew to be on the lookout for whales. The Pequod’s work has begun.
These chapters introduce the other men aboard the ship and begin to describe the onboard dynamics. The disparate nature of the crew, composed of men from various nations, doesn’t prevent the ship from functioning properly. The sense of harmony on the Pequod is quite different from the racially divided nineteenth-century American society on land. The leadership structure of the ship is, however, divided by color: the officers are white and the sailors are from the South Sea Islands, Gay Head, Africa, and other far corners of the globe. Ishmael’s offhand remark that Americans provide the “brains” and the rest of the world the “muscle” for this undertaking and many others reveals his belief in the harmony of such an arrangement.
Critic Alan Heimert has suggested that the pairing of mates and harpooners mirrors relationships of oppression in the nineteenth century. Starbuck represents New England and, just as this region depends on the Chinese/South Sea trade, he depends on Queequeg. Stubb represents the American West, and his power derives from his subordination of the Native American Indian, Tashtego. Flask represents the South and both controls and depends upon the African, Daggoo. While these pairings do reflect larger social structures, however, they also involve relationships that are much more complicated and much more interdependent than simple master-slave or boss-worker exchanges. The Pequod depends on cooperation for success in catching whales and sometimes for mere survival at sea, and men, in the end, are assessed according to their skill rather than race. Melville explores the development of an alternative, more egalitarian social system aboard the ship throughout Moby-Dick.
At this point, the irresistibly charismatic Ahab rules the ship. “[M]oody stricken Ahab [stands] before [his crew] with a crucifixion in his face”; he clearly represents a force that will not be denied. Obedience is crucial to maintaining onboard discipline and the chain of command, and captains were allowed and even expected to be tyrants. The suggestion, in Stubb’s dream, that one should consider it a privilege to be abused by Ahab rationalizes his despotism and hints at the grandiose folly in which the sailors will soon become entangled.
These chapters illustrate Ishmael’s peculiar style of narration. The chronological, plot-driven story is interwoven with digressions, character sketches, and rhetorical exercises. Some chapters, like Chapter 29, are presented as if they were scenes in a play. Ishmael is also given to foreboding language and foreshadowing: the Pequod “plunge[s] like fate,” Ahab has a “crucifixion in his face,” and Stubb speaks of something strange going on in the hold. The events that unfold are meant to seem like the fulfillment of Ahab’s destiny and the natural consequence of his megalomaniacal behavior. Ishmael constructs his narrative to suggest and anticipate what will happen rather than to create the effect of surprise.