Ahab and Starbuck exchange stories about their wives and children, and Ahab talks sadly about his wearying quest for Moby Dick. He calls himself a fool and thinks himself pathetic. Starbuck suggests that he give up the chase, but Ahab doubts that he can stop, feeling impelled by fate. As Ahab debates this profound dilemma, Starbuck steals away in despair. When Ahab goes to the other side of the deck to gaze into the water, Fedallah, too, looks over the rail.
This set of chapters prepares the reader and the Pequod’s crew for the final confrontation with Moby Dick. The atmosphere of doom and the feelings of inevitability grow stronger as the narrative progresses. The sailors, and probably the reader as well, are confused as to which events represent the fulfillment of prophecies of catastrophe and which are in themselves prophecies of disasters to come. The operation of fate and causality is thus unclear, and the justification for Ahab’s quest comes to seem strained, as it becomes increasingly apparent, especially in the episodes with the Rachel and the Delight, that an encounter with Moby Dick is both fated and sure to be fatal. Given that the conclusion seems inevitable, events and objects such as the Pequod’s “baptism” as it is splashed by the corpse thrown from the Delight, or the coffin attached to the Pequod’s stern, take on significance as symbols rather than as causes.
Much has changed aboard the Pequod since the beginning of its voyage; most notable is that its power structure has been subverted. Pip, formerly a minor character, is now sitting “in the ship’s full middle.” Ahab, in fact, tells Pip to sit in his chair as if Pip “were the captain.” Pip finds it strange that “a black boy [should play] host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!” He knows that people like him—the young, the black—typically serve older white men like Ahab. It is not clear whether Ahab is in complete control anymore. He asks himself:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?
In this self-conscious moment, a rare instance of questioning his obsession, Ahab wonders about his free will and his identity. He understands both the folly of his quest and the fact that he is compelled to pursue it by some force that he cannot overcome.