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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
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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!