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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 118: THE QUADRANT

Summer, the season when sperm whales congregate on the Line of the Pacific (where Ahab hopes to find Moby-Dick) is approaching. Ahab stands on the deck of the Pequod pointing his quadrant towards the sun to determine the ship's longitude and latitude. Like the fire-worshipper he is, Fedallah kneels beneath him, facing the brilliant sun.

Ahab finds the ship's position, yet grows irritated. The sun can only tell him where he is now; it can't predict the future; worst of all, it can't tell him the location of Moby-Dick. In rage he turns against the quadrant "Cursed be all things that cast man's eyes aloft to heaven," he cries, and he throws the instrument down to the deck to smash it.

NOTE: AHAB AND THE QUADRANT

Ahab's destruction of the quadrant shows how little he cares about the commercial success of the voyage or the survival of his crew. He's being decidedly impractical in smashing a navigational device. It also shows how estranged Ahab is from God, that he can bear nothing that draws his or anyone's eyes to heaven. Ahab smashes the quadrant because, in a sense, he doesn't want to know his place-for it would be lower than God's.



CHAPTER 119: THE CANDLES

The warm Japanese sea is the breeding ground for the deadliest storm sailors encounter, the typhoon. And now the Pequod is caught in the middle of such a storm. The sky roars with thunder and blazes with lightning; the ship's sails are torn to rags by the force of the wind. As Stubb and Starbuck look on, Ahab's boat is crushed by an enormous wave.

Despite the storm, Stubb tries hard to be his usual jolly self, but Starbuck is grim, Ahab is once again courting disaster, steering straight into the storm because Moby-Dick lies in that direction. The same terrible winds that are tearing the ship apart could be used to send it safely back to Nantucket, if only Ahab would abandon his chase.

"Who's there?" Starbuck cries.

"Old Thunder," answers Ahab. By using his nickname, Ahab reminds us of his link with thunder and lightning, a link that will grow even stronger in this intensely dramatic chapter. Starbuck wants to order lightning rods made ready so the electricity will be conducted safely to the sea; Ahab refuses to let him. And now the masts glow with an eerie energy that terrifies even Stubb. "The corposants have mercy on us all," he cries. (Corposant is a mariner's name for the lightning more often called Saint Elmo's fire.)

Fedallah kneels to worship the glow. Now you learn that Ishmael was correct when he said Ahab's scar made him look like something struck by lightning; Ahab received the mark when, like Fedallah, he was worshipping lightning. Now Ahab tempts the elements, standing with one foot on the kneeling Fedallah to shout at the storm. The lightning will not be kind to those who worship it reverently, he proclaims; it is better to die defiant than loving. Such is Ahab's Promethean attitude.

NOTE: AHAB AND THE LIGHTNING

Ahab's shouts to the lightning make it clear he considers himself the equal of any force in the universe-lightning, God, Fate, all of the things that the whale, Moby-Dick, represents. In this parody of a religious service, Ahab rejects the idea of obedience to anything but his own will, and defies the universe.

On the crushed boat, Ahab's harpoon glows with its own strange flame. "God is against thee, old man," Starbuck says. The crew seems ready to turn against their captain. Yet Ahab, with his great power of personality, regains control. The crewmen have sworn an oath; he will keep them to it. They run from him in fear.

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