MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 16-21]

Welcome to Part 5 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture, we will discuss Chapters 16-21.

In Chapter 16, Ishmael searches for a whaling ship on which he and Queequeg can sail. He finds the Pequod, and is hired by the ship’s owners, Peleg and Bildad. The owners assure Ishmael that the captain of the ship, named Ahab, is a competent captain, despite the recent rumors of his strange behavior arising from the loss of his leg to a whale. “Besides, my boy, he has a wife—not three voyages wedded—a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!”

Peleg, Bildad, and Ahab are biblical figures. They share many of the same characteristics with their namesakes from Moby Dick, and even foreshadow future events in the novel. Peleg is an ancestor of the Israelites, whose name forms the root lettering for sailing and a military tent. In Moby Dick, Peleg is always seen within or around a tent on the Pequod. Bildad is one of Job’s friends. He accuses Job of behaving immorally; and thus rightfully incurring God’s wrath. In Moby Dick, Bildad warns others to repent; else they will perish in the fiery pit. Ahab is the seventh king of Israel. He worships Baal, rather than Yahweh; he does not heed prophetic warnings; and he is slain in battle by an arrow. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s behavior is similar to the Biblical Ahab, and they share the same fate.

In Chapter 17, Ishmael returns to the Try Pots Inn, and finds Queequeg engaged in rituals for his Ramadan. “There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan;—but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” Queequeg meditates all night. In the morning, his Ramadan ends, and he and Ishmael walk to the Pequod.

In Chapter 18, Queequeg demonstrates his skills with the harpoon to Bildad and Peleg, who immediately hire him. They promise him the largest share of profits from the voyage that any harpooner ever received. Bildad tries to convert Queequeg to Christianity, but Peleg discourages this. He says that a pious harpooner is not a good harpooner. “A man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.”

In Chapter 19, Ishmael and Queequg return from the Pequod to the Try Pots Inn. Along the way, they are met by a strange man named Elijah, who suggests that the Pequod and Captain Ahab are doomed. “Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be, after all. Anyhow, it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity ’em!” This is another biblical allusion. Elijah of the Bible foretells the death of the biblical Ahab, just as Elijah does in Moby Dick.

In Chapter 20, provisions for the voyage are brought onto the Pequod over the course of several days. Captain Ahab is noticeably absent from all these proceedings, and Ishmael feels uneasy about this. “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

In Chapter 21, Ishmael and Queequeg walk to the Pequod on the day designated for the start of the voyage. They encounter Elijah, who asks Ishmael whether he saw men boarding the ship through the early morning mist. Ishmael replies that he did, but when Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at the ship, they find only one sailor on board. The sailor informs them that Captain Ahab boarded the ship last night. After sharing a smoke for several minutes, the rest of the crew begins to board the ship. “It was now clear sunrise. Soon the crew came on board in twos and threes; the riggers bestirred themselves; the mates were actively engaged; and several of the shore people were busy in bringing various last things on board. Meanwhile Captain Ahab remained invisibly enshrined within his cabin.”

Chapter 16
“All men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

“He had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.”

“When Bildad was a chief-mate, to have his drab-coloured eye intently looking at you, made you feel completely nervous, till you could clutch something—a hammer or a marling-spike, and go to work like mad, at something or other, never mind what. Indolence and idleness perished before him. His own person was the exact embodiment of his utilitarian character. On his long, gaunt body, he carried no spare flesh, no superfluous beard.”

“Wrong not Captain Ahab, because he happens to have a wicked name. Besides, my boy, he has a wife—not three voyages wedded—a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!”

Chapter 17
“I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan;—but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

“I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.”

“Fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.”

Chapter 18
“I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that.”

“When every moment we thought the ship would sink! Death and the Judgment then? What? With all three masts making such an everlasting thundering against the side; and every sea breaking over us, fore and aft. Think of Death and the Judgment then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury-masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.”

Chapter 19
“Anything down there about your souls?”

“No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any,—good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”

“He’s got enough, though, to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps.”

“Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be, after all. Anyhow, it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity ’em!”

“It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”

Chapter 20
“Besides the great length of the whaling voyage, the numerous articles peculiar to the prosecution of the fishery, and the impossibility of replacing them at the remote harbors usually frequented, it must be remembered, that of all ships, whaling vessels are the most exposed to accidents of all kinds, and especially to the destruction and loss of the very things upon which the success of the voyage most depends. Hence, the spare boats, spare spars, and spare lines and harpoons, and spare everythings, almost, but a spare Captain and duplicate ship.”

“If I had been downright honest with myself, I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

Chapter 21
“It was now clear sunrise. Soon the crew came on board in twos and threes; the riggers bestirred themselves; the mates were actively engaged; and several of the shore people were busy in bringing various last things on board. Meanwhile Captain Ahab remained invisibly enshrined within his cabin.”

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