by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Chapter 48: The First Lowering Summary
- Four of the strange men, who look to Ishmael like "aboriginal natives of the Manilas" (48.1), are preparing and lowering what everyone thought was a spare boat to go after the whale.
- The fifth is a tall man with yellowish skin, a Chinese-style black silk jacket, and braided white hair wrapped around his head like a turban. Ahab calls him Fedallah.
- Ishmael, that paragon of measured, fair judgment, immediately decides that these figures must be evil and demonic.
- Fedallah lowers the spare boat with Ahab in it and the four other strangers rowing, and they glide up to the other three boats, which are headed by the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. (Apparently, the mates launched their boats sometime between Chapter 47 and Chapter 48.)
- Ahab starts giving orders. Everyone is stunned by this unexpected revelation, but they start obeying.
- Stubb is the first to follow Ahab’s commands and forget about the strange situation.
- He starts ordering his crew around, swearing at them and abusing them, but saying everything so wittily and in such a lazy, friendly way that they don’t seem to mind and working hard to please him anyway.
- Archy and Cabaco are rowers in Stubb’s boat, and Archy doesn’t lose any time in saying "I told you so" about the stowaways.
- Starbuck’s boat crosses the path of Stubb’s, and Stubb calls out to Starbuck, asking what he thinks about "those yellow boys" (48.16).
- Starbuck agrees that they must have been smuggled on board earlier, but suggests that everyone forget about it and concentrate on hunting sperm whales and making some cash.
- Ishmael explains that, even though the five strangers appearing right at the moment when the hunt began is pretty freaky, everyone on the ship had heard Archy claiming he heard something out of place (see Chapter 43), so they were somewhat prepared for it.
- Ishmael himself thinks about Elijah’s warnings and about the mysterious men he saw the morning the Pequod sailed (see Chapter 21).
- Back to the whale hunt! Ahab’s boat is pulling out in front of the other three.
- The four strange yellow-skinned men are rowing with unbelievable strength.
- Fedallah is Ahab’s harpooneer, and he’s taken his jacket off so that he can thrust his bare chest out in the air to impress... wait a minute, who is he impressing?
- Ahab is actually managing to stand up in the boat by using one arm as a counterweight for his balance—he’s even wielding the steering oar.
- The whales have submerged a little. Starbuck shouts for everyone to keep an eye out for them and orders Queequeg to stand up.
- There’s a pause while everyone who can stands up in the boats to scan the water.
- Flask is standing on a handy post, but he’s so short that even that isn’t enough height for him. He asks Daggoo to hold an oar in the air for him to stand on, but Daggoo volunteers to let Flask stand on his shoulders instead.
- Symbolism alert: Flask climbs up on Daggoo’s shoulders, bracing himself against an arm Daggoo holds up in the air for the purpose. The small, impatient white man stomping on top of the strong, steady black man makes Ishmael think of them as allegorical figures like Passion and Vanity.
- Stubb is the only one who doesn’t seem worked up about the hunt. He takes his pipe out of his hatband and loads it, but before he can light it, Tashtego, who is his harpooneer, sees the whales and calls out.
- All there is to see is a little patch of churning water moving along the surface of the ocean, but all the boats start chasing it. The whales seem to be getting away!
- Starbuck urges his rowers on. Unlike Stubb, he doesn’t abuse and mock his men—all he does is whisper intensely to them to keep pulling on their oars.
- Flask’s coaching style is different from both Stubb’s and Starbuck’s and consists entirely of shouting and throwing his hat around.
- Stubb, still with his unlit pipe in his mouth, manages to multitask by making fun of his crew and of Flask’s weird fits at the same time.
- Ishmael edits out what Ahab says to his crew as unfit for Christian ears. Just consider it bleeped by the FCC.
- Flask keeps yelling at his crew about the whale that’s behind them. (Because of the way the oars are arranged in the boats, the rowers are facing backwards and can’t see where they’re going.) His men start to glance nervously over their shoulders, even though this interferes with their rowing.
- They continue chasing the whales. The boats are riding high upon the waves and then crashing down on the other side, the Pequod is following fast behind the boats, and the whales seem to have separated.
- There are whale-spouts and patches of white water all around the boats.
- Starbuck’s boat, on which Ishmael is a rower, hits a large patch of mist and nobody can see anything. The wind is rising and there’s a storm coming on.
- They can hear the other boats, but they can’t see them. Starbuck orders Queequeg to stand up. The boat is still rushing through the mist. The rowers can hear the whale surfacing and wallowing behind them, but can’t see it.
- Starbuck gives the order and Queequeg throws his harpoon.
- At the same moment, the squall hits the boat.
- The whale escapes and the boat is thrown around by what feels like an earthquake.
- Starbuck’s boat is still in one piece, but flooded.
- Everyone gets back to his place after being tossed around, but they’re sitting knee-deep in the water.
- There’s nothing they can do as the storm rages around them; the water’s rising too fast for them to bale out the boat.
- Starbuck manages to light a lantern and attach it to a pole, then orders Queequeg to hold this pole out in the storm, trying to let the other whaling boats or the Pequod know where they are and that they need help.
- They stay like this for hours as dawn starts to break.
- The lantern has burned out and lies broken in the bottom of the boat.
- They sit waiting. It’s still misty and they can’t see very far.
- Suddenly, they hear a creaking noise, and then out of the mist comes the Pequod, heading straight for them.
- The men all bail out as the boat is destroyed in a crash with the ship.
- It turns out that the other ships left the hunt before the storm hit and got back to the Pequod hours ago. The ship has been looking for Starbuck’s boat ever since.
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