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Chapters 117 - 118
The ship is now sailing towards the equator, which is where Ahab hopes to find Moby Dick. For this is where Moby Dick has been last seen. Ahab is taking the ship’s position with the sun using an instrument called the quadrant. As he holds the instrument, he looks up at the sun and says that it (the sun) can tell him where he is, but can it tell where he soon will be or where Moby Dick is. This is because just as the sun can seen him, so can it see Moby Dick. In a fit of anger and desperation, he throws the quadrant and stamps it to pieces. Then he cries out that henceforth, the ship will sail without any guide or instrument, to help them know the ship’s position. Thus, the Pequod sails on a new, unknown course.
In the following chapter, the narrator informs the reader that in the Pacific, the most terrible storm known as the typhoon occurs very often. The Pequod is caught in one such fierce storm. Soon huge waves, strong winds, and a gale toss the ship on the ocean. The sails get torn and the small masts break. A lightening strikes and a fire breaks out from under the three main masts. The crew is gripped with fear. They plead with Ahab to return home. Starbuck and Stubb read a bad omen into the terrible storm followed by the fire. But Ahab refuses to see any reason to return. He cries out that the crew has pledged that it will help find Moby Dick, and that the storm is certainly going to take the ship to the white whale.
Once again the reader sees the pent-up anger and frustration that periodically erupts to take violent forms. This time the target of his pent-up frustrations is the quadrant. By crushing the instrument, the writer suggests that like the ship, Ahab too is moving blindly without a course or direction.
The act of crushing the quadrant also reveals that Ahab resents being dependent on anything and anybody. Further, the quadrant is a symbol of man’s natural limitations as he needs some other means apart from intuition and common sense to study certain things. Therefore, the quadrant reminds Ahab of his own limitation, which his ego is not able to accept. Here, it is interesting to note that even the man closest to Ahab, Fedallah looks on with a ‘fatalistic despair’ as Ahab crushes the instrument. The quiet Parsee had prophesied earlier in the novel that he (Fedallah) would die before Ahab. Therefore, the despair on his face is because he knows that Ahab and his fate are inseparable.
The crushing of the quadrant also symbolizes Ahab's defiance to the sun, symbol of the eternal God. As if in answer to this defiance, the typhoon breaks out as a warning to Ahab. Further, when lightening strikes and the rod slips off, the main masts catch fire - the three burning rods seem like three giant candles - to symbolize the Trinity.
Ahab’s defiance in the face of the storm shows his arrogance and inability to realize that there are larger more powerful forces than him in the world. His arrogance leads to his downfall.