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 is praying.