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.
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.