Welcome to Part 9 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture we will discuss Chapters 48-54.
In Chapter 48, just before they lower their boats to chase whales for the first time on the voyage, the crew of the Pequod learns that there have been five Asian men hiding in the hull of the ship. Captain Ahab selected these men to be the crew of his harpooning boat; and he smuggled them on board before the voyage. Despite the sudden appearance of these men, the rest of the crew lower themselves into their boats, and begin to chase the whales. The chase, however, is unsuccessful. Queequeg manages to harpoon a whale, but the fish overturns their small craft. The other boats return to the ship, believing that Queequeg and the crew of his boat are lost. However, they find the men the following morning clutching onto planks and oars from the destroyed craft.
Melville’s description of the whale chase is as thrilling as any modern action film. “Though not one of the oarsmen was then facing the life and death peril so close to them ahead, yet with their eyes on the intense countenance of the mate in the stern of the boat, they knew that the imminent instant had come; they heard, too, an enormous wallowing sound as of fifty elephants stirring in their litter. Meanwhile the boat was still booming through the mist, the waves curling and hissing around us like the erected crests of enraged serpents.”
In Chapter 49, Ishmael reflects on his escape from death. As a crew member of Queequeg’s harpooning boat, Ishmael was one of the men given up for lost by the other men of the Pequod. This experience causes Ishmael to develop a new sense of appreciation for life. He feels as if he has received extra time to live; and he determines to enjoy it. He develops an attitude similar to the carefree attitude of Stubb. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.”
In Chapter 50, Ishmael notes that Ahab’s choice to personally command a harpoon-boat is uncommon for Captains in the whaling industry because of the risk of injury. Ahab’s decision is especially surprising considering the loss of his leg. Ishmael supposes that Ahab smuggled his Asian boat crew onto the Pequod to avoid raising the suspicions of the owners – Bildad and Peleg.
Ahab’s boat crew is composed of Orientals. Ishmael describes the men as devilish-looking, and intimidating, especially the boat crew’s leader and harpooneer Fedallah. “One cannot sustain an indifferent air concerning Fedallah. He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, and that but dimly.” Ishmael also suggests that Fedallah has some considerable influence over Ahab. But what this influence is will remain a mystery until the end of the novel.
In Chapter 51, Ishmael describes a strange phenomenon. For several consecutive nights, the watch sees a solitary spout of air from a whale. Some crew members believe that the mysterious spout of air is from Moby Dick, leading them toward their doom. But the crew has resigned itself to fate; and no attempt is made to dissuade Ahab from following the spout.
In Chapter 52, the Pequod encounters another whaling ship for the first time on the voyage. The other ship is called the Albatross. As the two ships pass each other, Ahab calls out to the other captain, asking him whether he has seen Moby Dick. The other captain tries to respond, but drops his horn into the sea as he is raising it to his mouth. The Pequod’s crew regards this occurrence as an omen.
While the Albatross is passing the Pequod, Ishmael observes the sailors on the other ship. He compares the grand-sounding phrase “voyage around the world,” with the grim faces of the other sailors, who have been at sea for over four years. Ishmael concludes that all the pride and glory of humanity is like a trip around the world. It sounds impressive, but ultimately it brings you back to the point you were before you embarked. There is never any progress. “Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? In pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”
In Chapter 53, Ishmael explains that a Gam is a meeting between two or more whale-ships at sea. During a Gam, the ships often exchange news about whaling and recent events on land. The internet and cell phones did not exist in the late 18th century, so sailors at sea depended upon other ships to send messages to their loved ones at home. Ishmael writes that Ahab refused to engage in a Gam with another ship unless the other Captain had news of Moby Dick. Ahab’s refusal to interact with other whaling ships isolates the ship’s crew from external affairs. Thus, the crew’s single focus becomes Ahab’s single focus – Moby Dick.
In Chapter 54, Ishmael recounts a Gam between the Pequod and another ship called the Town-Ho. During this Gam, the crew of the Pequod learns that the Town-Ho recently lost one of its officers to Moby Dick. The crew members of the Town-Ho believe that it was by the direct command of God that the white whale killed the officer; because the officer had unjustly punished a sailor. By ascribing the act of Moby Dick to God, Melville reinforces the theme of Fate. Everything happens in accord with the will of God or the Fates. Though the sailors look for omens and indications of the future, they accept that they cannot alter their destiny. This acceptance leads some of them – like Ishmael and Stubb – to adopt a carefree and joyful attitude. Ahab, on the other hand, sets about the task of his Fate with stern determination.
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“What it was that inscrutable Ahab said to that tiger-yellow crew of his—these were words best omitted here; for you live under the blessed light of the evangelical land. Only the infidel sharks in the audacious seas may give ear to such words, when, with tornado brow, and eyes of red murder, and foam-glued lips, Ahab leaped after his prey.”
“Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world;—neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale.”
“Though not one of the oarsmen was then facing the life and death peril so close to them ahead, yet with their eyes on the intense countenance of the mate in the stern of the boat, they knew that the imminent instant had come; they heard, too, an enormous wallowing sound as of fifty elephants stirring in their litter. Meanwhile the boat was still booming through the mist, the waves curling and hissing around us like the erected crests of enraged serpents.”
“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.”
“It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.”
“One cannot sustain an indifferent air concerning Fedallah. He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, and that but dimly; but the like of whom now and then glide among the unchanging Asiatic communities, especially the Oriental isles to the east of the continent—those insulated, immemorial, unalterable countries, which even in these modern days still preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth’s primal generations, when the memory of the first man was a distinct recollection, and all men his descendants, unknowing whence he came, eyed each other as real phantoms, and asked of the sun and the moon why they were created and to what end; when though, according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.”
“This midnight-spout had almost grown a forgotten thing, when, some days after, lo! at the same silent hour, it was again announced: again it was descried by all; but upon making sail to overtake it, once more it disappeared as if it had never been. And so it served us night after night, till no one heeded it but to wonder at it. Mysteriously jetted into the clear moonlight, or starlight, as the case might be; disappearing again for one whole day, or two days, or three; and somehow seeming at every distinct repetition to be advancing still further and further in our van, this solitary jet seemed forever alluring us on.”
“Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”
“GAM. NOUN—A social meeting of two (or more) Whaleships, 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.”
“It was not very long after speaking the Goney that another homeward-bound whaleman, the Town-Ho,* was encountered. She was manned almost wholly by Polynesians. In the short gam that ensued she gave us strong news of Moby Dick. To some the general interest in the White Whale was now wildly heightened by a circumstance of the Town-Ho’s story, which seemed obscurely to involve with the whale a certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men.”