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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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Some ships use a more primitive method of determining their speed and direction, the log and line. The Pequod has neglected its log and line in favor of compass and quadrant. But Ahab, remembering his vow to steer "by dead recking and log and line," orders the device to be used.

Two seamen prepare to throw the line into the water behind the ship. But the Manxman warns that the wood and rope have been so neglected during the voyage they will break. And he's correct.


Ahab has smashed his quadrant and seen his compass made worthless. Now another means of determining location (and so of continuing the quest for Moby-Dick) has been ruined. Clearly this is a warning to Ahabbut another one that he refuses to follow. He orders a new log and line made.

As the men are hauling in the broken line, Ahab sees Pip approaching. When the old Manxman pushes the boy aside, Ahab grows angry. "Hands off that holiness," Ahab says.


Here we see that Ahab still possesses human feelings. He's genuinely touched by Pip, understanding that Pip's madness somehow connects the boy to God. He announces that Pip will stay in Ahab's cabin from now on. Many critics have compared the bond between Pip and Ahab to that between the Fool and Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear: both Pip and the Fool have a madness that contains much wisdom; both Ahab and Lear are touched by these madmen and allow them liberties they would never allow any other person; and both Ahab and Lear ignore the wise advice of these madmen till they themselves go mad.

Notice, though, that even in this generous moment, Ahab takes pains to blame God and the universe (not Stubb) for Pip's plight. The gods are supposed to be good, yet they've abandoned the poor boy; men are supposed to be evil, yet here is Pip, full of goodness and love.


The Pequod steers a lonely path toward the Equator, and the ocean's calm seems like the calm before a storm. Early in the morning Flask is startled by an unearthly cry, which the Manxman interprets as the cry of newly drowned sailors.

Shortly after sunrise one of the crew climbs to the masthead to begin his watch. Suddenly what Ishmael feared would happen to him happens to the sailor. He falls into the sea. The life-buoy is thrown to him, but the sailor doesn't rise to grasp it, and the life-buoy is so old that it sinks, too.

Ishmael notes that some people would see in the death a warning: "the first man to look out for the White Whale on the White Whale's own grounds has died." But the crew is relieved, because they believe this was the death foretold by the strange cries of the night before.

When no cask light enough to make a replacement life-buoy can be found, Queequeg offers his unused coffin. The carpenter grumpily makes the necessary alterations, annoyed that Queequeg didn't die and use the carpenter's work for its intended purpose.

As the carpenter works, Ahab comes out of his cabin to watch. He wittily calls the carpenter "unprincipaled as the gods, and as much of a jack of all trades" because the carpenter deals both with life (Ahab's leg) and death (the coffin). But the carpenter doesn't understand the joke, or any of Ahab's other remarks. Disgusted, Ahab shouts at the workman, then ponders the meaning of a coffin converted to a life-buoy.


From the opening pages of Moby-Dick, we've seen coffins used as ominous symbols of death, but throughout the book, symbols are ambiguous. Here a symbol of death is made into a symbol of life. You'll see the coffin play an important role at the end of the book.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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