[A]ll evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.
Ishmael compares the legend of Moby Dick to his experience of the whale. He notes that sperm whale attacks have increased recently and that superstitious sailors have come to regard these attacks as having an intelligent, even supernatural origin. In particular, wild rumors about Moby Dick circulate among whalemen, suggesting that he can be in more than one place at the same time and that he is immortal. Ishmael remarks that even the wildest of rumors usually contains some truth. Whales, for instance, have been known to travel with remarkable speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific; thus, it is possible for a whale to be caught in the Pacific with the harpoons of a Greenland ship in it. Moby Dick, who has defied capture numerous times, exhibits an “intelligent malignity” in his attacks on men.
Ishmael explains that Ahab lost his leg when he tried to attack Moby Dick with a knife after the whale destroyed his boats. Far from land, Ahab did not have access to much in the way of medical care and thus underwent unimaginable physical and mental suffering on the ship’s return to Nantucket. Ishmael deduces that Ahab’s madness and his single-minded drive to destroy the whale must have originated during his bedridden agony.
Ishmael explains what Moby Dick meant to him at the time of the voyage: above all, it was the whiteness of the whale that appalled him. Ishmael begins his discussion of “whiteness” by noting its use as a symbol of virtue, nobility, and racial superiority. To him, the color white only multiplies the terror when it is attached to any object already “terrible” in and of itself, such as a shark or polar bear.
This chapter offers a short, dramatic dialogue between two sailors on watch. One thinks that he has heard a humanlike noise from the hold (where a ship’s cargo is normally stowed). The other hears nothing, and the first reminds him that Stubb and others have whispered about a mysterious passenger in the hold.
Ishmael describes Ahab’s attempts to locate Moby Dick. Ahab believes that he can predict where the whale will be by tracing currents that the whale might follow in search of food. He is also aware that Moby Dick has been known to show up in a certain place at the same time every year. Ahab’s single-minded focus occasionally leads him to burst into fits of near-mad shrieking. Ishmael speculates that these fits are the result of the remainder of Ahab’s soul trying to escape from his demented psyche.
Ishmael acknowledges that the reader may find the story thus far presented to be incredible and cites several items from his own experience and from written authorities to bolster the probability of his narrative. First, he demonstrates the uniqueness of individual whales and the frequency with which whales survive attack by humans. He then considers why people may not believe such stories: perhaps readers haven’t heard about the perils or vivid adventures common to the whaling industry. He asks that the audience use “human reasoning” when judging his story and not read it as a “hideous and intolerable allegory.”
Ishmael considers the means by which Ahab will exact his revenge. Because Ahab must use men as his tools, he has to be careful to maintain their loyalty throughout the long sea voyage. Ahab knows that he can appeal to their emotions for a limited time but that cash is a more reliable motivator. He is acutely aware that his behavior leaves him open to the charge of “usurpation,” since he has changed the purpose of the voyage from that which the ships’ owners intended. He knows that he must aggressively pursue all sperm whales in his path or his officers will have grounds to relieve him of his command.
Ishmael describes the slow, dreamy atmosphere on the ship when it is not in pursuit of a whale. He and Queequeg make a sword-mat, and Ishmael likens their weaving to work on “the Loom of Time”: the threads of the warp are fixed like necessity, and man has limited free will, as he can interweave his own cross-threads into this fixed structure. When Queequeg’s sword hits the loom and alters the overall pattern, Ishmael calls this chance. He is jolted out of his reverie by Tashtego’s sighting of a whale. Suddenly, everyone is busied in preparation for the whale hunt. Just as the men are about to push off in the harpoon boats, “five dusky phantoms” emerge around Ahab.
These chapters contain very little action, focusing instead on the meaning of the events already described. In the first place, Ishmael takes considerable pains to ensure that the reader will not interpret his story as a tall tale fabricated to impress the gullible. He demonstrates in great detail that a specific whale can be recognized, become the subject of rumor and legend, and even be hunted. His request that his narrative be taken literally and not as some “hideous and intolerable allegory” emphasizes that Ahab’s desire to kill Moby Dick exists not on some symbolic level but rather in the realm of corporeal experience.
Ishmael’s protestation against allegorical interpretation is obviously ironic, since the reader knows that Ishmael’s story is fiction and has witnessed Ishmael’s inordinate tendency to introduce an allegorical or metaphorical aspect into almost everything that his narrative touches. But Ishmael is also in earnest, as his exhaustive presentation of facts about whales demonstrates. The point of this irony seems to be that the events of the novel were not invented by an author (whether Melville or Ishmael) in order to communicate a single allegorical meaning. Rather, the novel presents events that could, apparently, happen and explores the different ways in which people—Ahab, Ishmael, the other sailors—interpret these same events. The movements of whales, like all of the secrets of the ocean, are largely hidden, and the whalemen’s struggles to piece together what they see and hear resemble other people’s struggles to make meaning out of life or stories in books.
Ishmael returns repeatedly to a scientific model to interpret various phenomena. He assembles a mass of empirical observations about whales and whaling and systematizes it, modifying the work of previous naturalists and leaving behind an account that could be modified by scientists after him. Moreover, he demonstrates that records of whale sightings form the subject of a captain’s practical knowledge, so that whales can be actively and methodically hunted.
The symbolic or subjective meaning of Moby Dick’s existence is a more complicated matter. The rumors circulated by the whalemen about Moby Dick’s ubiquity and immortality seem rooted in a credulousness born of fear and superstition. Ahab’s obsession with the whale is far more profound than that of the other sailors. He projects all of his intuitions about the presence of evil in the world onto the White Whale. Though Ishmael notes the inherent absurdity of this projection, his remark that other cultures have presumed the existence of malignant forces in the world suggests that Ahab’s belief in an intelligent and malignant presence lurking behind creation is not necessarily wrong.