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CHAPTER 16: THE SHIP
Queequeg tells Ishmael that the idol, Yojo, has chosen Ishmael to select their ship. Ishmael had been hoping the more-experienced Queequeg would make the selection, but he gives in. As Ishmael leaves for the docks, he notices that Queequeg is shut in with Yojo, apparently performing a ceremony of fasting like during the Christian Lent or the Muslim Ramadan.
Three whaling ships, the Devil-Dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod, are tied at the docks.
NOTE: THE PEQUOD
The ship Ishmael sees, and eventually selects to sail on, is named for Massachusetts Indians brutally exterminated by the Puritans in the 17th century. It's a reminder of the dark side of the American experience-that Christianity can breed killing, that American expansion was sometimes achieved at the expense of others.
The Pequod is a strange-looking ship, small, weather-beaten, its masts as stiff as "the spines of the three old kings of Cologne" (the three Magi), its decks as wrinkled as the stone floors of Canterbury Cathedral. Moby-Dick contains numerous references to religion, including references to the three Magi, ancient seekers after God. Is the Pequod sailing to seek God too? The ancient wood has been further decorated with whalebones so that the ship becomes "a cannibal of her craft"- a whale that hunts other whales.
Inside a wigwam pitched on the deck Ishmael finds a cranky old man named Peleg, who, from his clothing, appears to be a Quaker. Ishmael assumes that Peleg is the Pequod's captain, but in fact he is one of the ship's owners. Peleg tells Ishmael that Captain Ahab will command the ship on this voyage, and that Ishmael can find him by looking for a man with only one leg. The other was "crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty [sperm whale] that ever clipped a boat!" And so we learn about the existence of Moby-Dick.
Peleg takes Ishmael to meet another of the Pequod's owners, Bildad. The two men are comic opposites: Peleg loud and cranky and not at all religious; Bildad grave and pious. Though the two men still use the "thee" and "thou" of good, peaceful Quakers, they are, says Ishmael, "fighting Quakers." Such men are strange mixtures indeed, Ishmael believes, and if their mixture should unite in a man of greatly superior force it would produce a creature formed for noble tragedies." (You'll shortly meet a man who fits that description very well.)
The two captains agree to hire Ishmael but immediately begin to argue about how much to pay him. Each crewman on a whaling voyage receives a percentage of the voyage's profits, called a lay. Because of his inexperience, Ishmael has decided that the most he should ask for is the 275th lay, or 1/275th of the profits. He's all the more distressed when Bildad offers only a 1/777th share. Peleg argues for 1/300th and the difference between the two owners almost boils over into a fistfight. When it is over, Ishmael ends up grateful to accept 1/300th.
Ishmael leaves, but he begins to worry about what the Pequod's captain is like, and returns to ask about Ahab. The captain is not really sick, but not really well, Peleg answers. He's a strange man, one who has traveled much, seen much, fought much. His name is that of a very evil biblical king, but Peleg reassures Ishmael that the name was only the crazy whim of Ahab's mad mother. Yet he also recalls that an old Indian woman said the name would prove prophetic. Still, Peleg thinks Ahab's a good man, moody because he lost his leg, but a man with a wife and child, a man who "has his humanities."
As Ishmael leaves the two Quakers, he thinks of Captain Ahab and feels sympathy, almost awe.
In this scene you can see how Melville masterfully builds interest in a character before the character appears by having others talk about him. It will be many pages before Ahab appears, yet he's already a vivid figure. There are a number of things to remember about him. One is his biblical name, that of a wicked king who disobeyed God. A second is Ishmael's earlier comment that a Quaker whaler might make a noble and tragic figure. Others are Peleg's descriptions of him as "a grand ungodly God-like man," and a man who still "has his humanities." After such a build-up you may feel the same kind of sympathetic curiosity that Ishmael feels toward this mysterious figure.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version