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The novel returns in this chapter to Ishmael’s first-person account of the voyage of the Pequod.
Ishmael tells us that he, like the rest of the crew, is totally ready to jump on the swearing-revenge-on-Moby-Dick bandwagon.
Moby Dick has been around for a while, apparently, but whaling ships go on such long voyages, and they’re often so far apart, that it’s taken some time for his legend to spread.
Plenty of ships have fought him without recognizing him as one specific legendary whale.
It used to be the case that, even when sperm whale hunters heard the legend of Moby Dick, it didn’t stop them from hunting him if they came across him.
Over time, however, Moby Dick has brought about so many accidents and catastrophes that even the bravest don’t want to attack him anymore.
Now, the rumors have, naturally, been embroidered by superstitious claims that there’s something supernatural about Moby Dick.
Still, even leaving Moby Dick as a particularly vicious whale aside, sperm whales have always had a reputation for being way more tough than other kinds of normal, wimpy whales like the right whale.
Some writers even claim that sperm whales are the vampires of the sea, constantly out for human blood. Okay, "vampires of the sea" was our phrase, but you get the idea.
The result of all this is that most of the guys who have gotten accustomed to hunting right whales absolutely refuse to hunt sperm whales.
A few of them, however, are still willing to hunt sperm whales, even Moby Dick, mostly because they’re pretty far down the grapevine and hadn’t heard all the stories yet.
At one point, says Ishmael, whalers actually believed that Moby Dick was everywhere at once, and that different ships could hunt him in different places at the same time.
Ishmael thinks this is probably just because whales know about some kind of Arctic Passage that ships haven’t found yet.
After a while, some whalers have even started believing that Moby Dick is immortal, because he has been fought so many times and kept on living. So now, he’s everywhere, at all times, at once... omnipresent and omnitemporal... hmm, who does that remind you of?
Even if Moby Dick doesn’t have supernatural powers, he’s still terrifying: he has a "peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump" (41.16) as well as a pattern of strange white marbling on his body and a deformed lower jaw.
Plus, when boats are chasing him, he turns around and attacks them.
He’s a malignant, violent, evil mockery of a normally placid, natural creature, so of course he freaks out the sailors who encounter him.
Having established Moby Dick’s reputation, Ishmael (or the narrator—how could Ishmael know this?) describes the scene in which Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick:
Having lost all three of his ship’s whaling boats to Moby Dick’s violence, Ahab’s floundering around in the water, and everything is basically falling apart.
Ahab grabs the only weapon he can find, a six-inch knife, which is as threatening to a whale as a splinter is to you.
Moby Dick sweeps "his sickle-shaped lower jaw" (41.21) underneath Ahab and cuts one of his legs right off.
Ahab begins by being furious at Moby Dick specifically for his maiming; then, he starts to blame the whale for all of his pain and anger. Eventually, Ahab turns the White Whale into a Symbol of All Evil.
This doesn’t all happen at once, of course, but as his ship is traveling home, Ahab lies in his hammock stewing over things and slowly going crazy. You know how your mom used to tell you, "if you make that face long enough, it’ll freeze like that"? That’s what happened to Ahab’s mind.
On the voyage home, Ahab is obviously crazy, ranting and raving, and his crew have to put him in a straitjacket.
Later, Ahab calms down and seems to have gotten over his little psychotic break, but all he really does is push his madness below the surface. He becomes more successful (although, we would argue, not entirely successful) at hiding his crazy from other people.
Ishmael (or perhaps it’s the narrator at this point) describes Ahab as noble and tragic, a man who can tell that he’s only pretending to be sane, but can’t help himself.
The owners of the Pequod must have heard about all this, but they probably just thought it would make Ahab an even better captain, because now he has a weird grudge against whales.
All they care about is their profits, and they don’t realize that Ahab might jeopardize their shareholder returns.
The strangest thing is how perfectly the situation has worked out for Ahab—it almost seems like some higher power has handpicked a crew of people easily convinced to join his crazy revenge quest.