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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.”
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