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As the crew launches the harpoon boats for the first time this voyage, Ahab’s secret crew emerges from the hold and boards the captain’s harpoon boat. Fedallah, their leader, is a dark, sinister figure with a Chinese jacket and a turban made from coiling his own hair around his head. With him are several more “tiger-yellow . . . natives of the Manillas” (the Philippines) who have been hiding in the hold of the Pequod. Ishmael recalls the shadowy figures that he saw boarding the ship in Nantucket, the strange noises that have been heard coming from the hold, and Ahab’s frequent visits down there: all these phenomena are explained by the presence of Fedallah and his men. The harpoon boat crews stare at their newly discovered shipmates, but Flask tells them to continue doing their jobs—to concentrate on hunting the whale. The Pequod’s first lowering after a pod of whales is unsuccessful. Flask must stand on his harpooner Daggoo’s shoulders because he is too short to see otherwise. Queequeg manages to land a harpoon in a whale, but the animal overturns the boat. The men in Queequeg’s boat are nearly crushed by the ship as it passes looking for them, since a squall has cast mist over everything. Finally, however, they are pulled aboard.
Ishmael laughs at the absurdity of the situation in which he finds himself: he has never been on a whaling voyage before, and he is surprised at the danger that attends even an ordinary whale hunt. The Pequod’s mates tell him that they have hunted whales in much more dangerous conditions than those that Ishmael has just witnessed. Ishmael decides to rewrite his will and asks Queequeg to help him do so. He feels better afterward, and comes to a morbid understanding of himself as a man already dead: any additional time that he survives at sea will be a bonus.
Ahab’s decision to have his own harpoon boat and crew, says Ishmael, is not a typical practice in the whaling industry. Captains do not frequently risk themselves in pursuit of whales, and Ahab’s injury makes it even more surprising that he would personally command a harpoon boat. Clearly the Pequod’s owners would not approve, which accounts for Ahab’s secrecy about Fedallah and his plans. However strange, “in a whaler, wonders soon wane” because there are so many unconventional sights on such a voyage. Even though whalemen are not easily awestruck, they find Ahab’s crew bizarre, and “[t]hat hair-turbaned Fedallah remained a muffled mystery to the last.” Ishmael hints that there is something demoniacal about the man.
Looking down from the masthead one night, Fedallah thinks that he sees a whale spouting. The ship then tries to follow it but the whale is not seen again. Mysteriously, a similar spout is seen regularly each night from then on. Ishmael calls it a “spirit-spout” because it seems to be a phantom leading them on. Some think it might be Moby Dick leading the ship on toward its destruction. The Pequod sails around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, a particularly treacherous passage. Through it all, Ahab commands the deck robustly and, even when he is down in the cabin, keeps his eye on the cabin compass that tells him where the ship is going. Between the phantom spout and the dangerous passage, the men resign themselves to being “practical fatalists.”
The men soon see a ship called the Goney, or Albatross, a vessel with a “spectral appearance” that has been at sea for four years. Ahab asks this ship’s crew, as the two ships pass by, if they have seen Moby Dick. The other captain tries to respond, but a gust of wind blows the speaking trumpet from his mouth. The two ships’ wakes cross as they continue on, and the schools of fish that have been following the Pequod turn to follow the Albatross, which saddens Ahab. The Pequod continues its way “around the world,” and Ishmael ruminates that this grand-sounding mission really amounts to going in circles.
Ishmael then explains why the Pequod and the Albatross did not have a “gam.” Ishmael defines a gam as “[a] social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.” Ships typically exchange letters, reading material, and news of their relative successes. Ahab, however, desires gams only with ships whose captains have information about Moby Dick.
Ishmael narrates a story about another ship, the Town-Ho, that was originally told to Tashtego during a gam between the Town-Ho and the Pequod. Ishmael announces at the beginning of the chapter that he gives the reader the version that he once told to some Spanish friends in Lima. The basic story concerns Radney, a mate from Martha’s Vineyard, and Steelkilt, a sailor from Buffalo, who have a conflict on board the Town-Ho, a sperm whaler from Nantucket. Steelkilt rebels against Radney’s authority, assaults him after being provoked, and starts a mutiny. The mutineers are captured, flogged, and released, but Steelkilt wants revenge against Radney, who flogged him when the captain would not. The Town-Ho encounters Moby Dick before Steelkilt can murder Radney, though, and, in the process of trying to harpoon the whale, Radney falls out of the boat. Moby Dick snatches him in his jaws. Ishmael’s Peruvian listeners have a hard time believing the story, but he swears on a Bible that he is telling the truth and claims to have met and spoken with Steelkilt.
The appearance of Fedallah and his men changes the dynamic aboard the Pequod. Fedallah is an anomaly even in the culturally diverse whaling industry, and Ishmael describes him as a “muffled mystery to the last.” Early in the novel, when Ishmael witnesses Fedallah and the others slipping aboard the ship, and Elijah ominously alludes to them, it seems as if the Pequod has been boarded by ghosts or devils. Now Ishmael realizes that they are quite real, although they remain mysterious because of their aloofness and their connection to Ahab. Throughout the narrative, the reader finds it difficult to extricate the real from the supernatural, in part because Ahab exploits mystery and superstition for his own ends.
The concept of fate, in particular, serves Ahab’s purposes, as he manipulates the crew into accepting that the hunt for the White Whale is their destiny. Fatalism, the belief in the inevitability of fate, is a perverse comfort to the sailors, enabling them to set aside their fears during times of danger since they believe that what will happen to them has already been determined by an external force. However, this supposed comfort doesn’t stop the crew from looking for signs of their fate. The phantom spout, the fish that turn away from the Pequod to follow the Albatross, and the death of Radney in “The Town-Ho’s Story” all foreshadow a catastrophic end to the Pequod’s quest. For Ishmael, acknowledging these signs and coming to terms with the extraordinary dangers of whaling brings a sense of relief. His belief in a predetermined fate lets him appreciate the present, and he comes to consider each new day as a gift.
Read more about the theme of the deceptiveness of fate.
Ahab, unlike his crew, views fate not as an externally determined destiny but as a way to justify his own perverse actions. He uses the idea of fate to motivate his crew and actively tries to determine his own “fate.” Moby Dick will not find Ahab; rather, Ahab must seek Moby Dick out. For Ahab, fate is a fiction that allows him to pursue his vengeance: most of what he calls fate is the result of deliberately planned action.
The two “gams” in this section of the book are the first in a series of inset stories that come out of encounters with other ships. The gams highlight Ahab’s unhealthy obsession by reminding the reader that men other than Ahab have encountered Moby Dick without reacting so irrationally to the experience. Gams are part of the normal social order of the seafaring world, and Ahab’s unwillingness to participate in them unless he can use them to glean information relevant to his quest accentuates his eccentricity. The narrative uses gams to build a more complete picture of the maritime community: stories are traded, legends grow, and the social codes of the sailors are put on display.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!