The sailors aboard the Pequod now see this very Gabriel in front of them. As Captain Mayhew tells Ahab a story about the White Whale, Gabriel interrupts continually. According to Mayhew, he and his men first heard about the existence of Moby Dick when they were speaking to another ship. Gabriel then warned against killing it, calling it “the Shaker God incarnated.” They ran into Moby Dick a year later, and the ship’s leaders decided to hunt it. As a mate stood in the ship to throw his lance, the whale flipped the mate into the air and tossed him into the sea. No one was harmed except for the mate, who drowned.
Gabriel had watched this episode from the masthead. The apparent fulfillment of his prophecy has led the crew to become his disciples. When Ahab confirms that he still intends to hunt the White Whale, Gabriel points to him, saying, “Think, think of the blasphemer—dead, and down there!—beware of the blasphemer’s end!” Ahab realizes that the Pequod is carrying a letter for the dead mate and tries to hand it over to Captain Mayhew on the end of a cutting-spade pole. Gabriel manages to grab it, impales it on the boat-knife, and sends it back to Ahab’s feet as the Jeroboam’s boat pulls away.
Ishmael backtracks to explain how Queequeg initially inserts the blubber hook into the whale for the cutting-in. Ishmael, as Queequeg’s bowsman, ties the monkey-rope around his own waist, “wedding” himself to Queequeg, who is on the whale’s floating body trying to attach the hook. (In a footnote, we learn that only on the Pequod were the monkey and this holder actually tied together, an improvement introduced by Stubb, who found that it increases the reliability of the holder.) While Ishmael holds Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo brandish their whale-spades to keep the sharks away. When Dough-Boy, the steward, offers Queequeg some tepid ginger and water, the mates frown at the influence of pesky Temperance activists and make the steward bring him alcohol. The remainder of the ginger, a gift from “Aunt Charity,” a Nantucket matron, is thrown overboard.
The Pequod spots a right whale. After killing the whale, Stubb asks Flask what Ahab might want with this “lump of foul lard” (right whales were far less valuable than sperm whales). Flask responds that Fedallah says that a whaler with a sperm whale’s head on her starboard side and a right whale’s head on her larboard will never capsize afterward. They then both confess that they don’t like Fedallah and think of him as “the devil in disguise.” The right whale’s head is lifted onto the opposite side of the boat from the sperm whale’s head, and, in fact, the Pequod settles into balance. As Ishmael observes, however, the ship would float even better with neither head there. He observes Fedallah standing in Ahab’s shadow and notes that Fedallah’s shadow “seem[s] to blend with, and lengthen Ahab’s.”
This series of chapters juxtaposes the practical matters of whaling with a series of perceptual problems. The sharks that swarm around the boat seem to possess malevolent agency even after they are killed. Whale carcasses find their way into ships’ logs as rocks or shoals, giving rise to long-lasting errors. Ishmael argues that the whale’s blubber is its skin, but his argument suggests that any such classification of the whale’s parts must be arbitrary. Such difficulties suggest that mistakes and misreadings cannot be avoided, and that comparison and approximation are the only means by which things can be described.
Instead of anthropomorphizing the whale—that is, assigning it human characteristics—Ishmael takes features of the whale and presents them as potential models for human life. He admires and envies the whale’s blubber, which insulates the whale and enables it to withstand its environment, as evidenced by his cry of “Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!” For Ishmael, however, the human acquiring of such an attribute has metaphorical significance: the idea of “remain[ing] warm among ice” hearkens back to the image, in Chapter 58, of the soul’s small island of “peace and joy” amid terrorizing oceans. With its “rare virtue of a strong individual vitality,” then, the whale, unlike man, according to Ishmael, exists in a sort of bliss of perfection, self-possession, and independence.