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Chapters 48 - 49
The boats are lowered and the chase begins. But instead of three boats (under the three mates), there is one extra, which is manned by Ahab and his dark men. Ahab addresses the head of these dark men as Fedallah. When the boat is ready, Ahab gets down, standing erect on his boat, and calls out to his mates and tells them to spread their boats out as far as possible. When Starbucks tries to inquire about the mysterious men, Ahab does not give him an opportunity to do so.
Starbuck realizes that the men had been smuggled into the ship before it left the Nantucket harbor. Though he is put off at the captain’s underhanded way of getting these strangers into the ship, he keeps his feelings to himself and urges his men to get on with the work at hand. Ishmael is with Starbuck and Queequeg in their boat. As they near the whale, with Queequeg all set with the harpoon, a sudden squall upsets their boat. The squall lasts all evening with thick mist everywhere. In the confusion that ensues, the whale escapes, with the iron (of the harpoon) grazing it. The men swim back to the boat with their oars and sit there in knee-deep water. The winds howl and the squall surrounds them. The men shout out for the other boats, but their shouts can hardly be heard in the deafening winds. Since they cannot row the boat, which is half filled with seawater, Starbuck lights the lantern and asks Queequeg to hold it. All night, Queequeg holds the lantern as a messenger of hope in the darkness and confusion.
At dawn, the wet and shivering sailors try to find their way in the mist. Suddenly, Queequeg hears a faint creaking and warns everybody. The sound comes nearer and nearer and a huge form of a ship looms right in front of them through the mist. The sailors leap into the water as their ship Pequod appears in full view. The abandoned boat gets crushed under the ship’s hull. All the men are soon pulled up on board.
Ishmael, who is the last to be hauled up on board, asks King-Post (Flask) if such incidents are very common during whaling expeditions. To this, Flask laughs and says that it is very common while chasing a whale to flirt with death. Stubb and Queequeg also tell him that incidents like this happen often. Considering the risk involved in the whaling profession, Ishmael tells Queequeg that he might as well write a rough draft of his will with Queequeg as his witness. After having written the will, Ishmael feels better.
In the following chapter, Ahab makes it clear that he intends to be present in the boat every time they see a whale. It is also evident that he has recruited Fedallah and his band of oar men to do the task. They are from the ‘Manillas’ (Philippines). Fedallah, on the other hand, is a dark skinned man from the Orient. And just as the Orient is a mystery to the people living in the west, so is Fedallah as a mysterious figure - a muffled mystery to the last.
In these chapters, one learns more about Ahab - his shrewd calculations and darker side. In recruiting Fedellah and his men secretly, he has prepared himself for the worst. For in case the others in the ship refuse to support him in his search for Moby Dick, he has Fedellah and his men to fall back on. Thus, here is a man who is prepared to try any means or methods to reach his goal. Ahab is also different from other whaling captains as he goes into the boat with his whalemen rather than staying on board. This reveals his diabolical passion for the hunt.
From the incident where Ishmael's boat gets lost in the squall, the reader realizes the perilous nature of the whaling profession and how lightly life is taken by the sailors. It is almost a given that death is a possibility in such a profession yet the men have a cavalier attitude about it.
Fedallah is presented as a mysterious figure who is cunning and inscrutable. What he symbolizes is left up to the reader but his ambiguity lends itself to many interpretations. He may represent Ahab’s darker side or he may represent that which can never be explained. He has powers of observation that are keener than those of the other harpooners as he sights the spirit-spout in the next chapter.