[D]oubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
"GRAND CONTESTED ELECTION FOR THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES. "WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL. "BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN."
Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces – though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.
Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. (1.11-12)
So here’s what Ishmael claims: I went on my voyage on the Pequod because it was fate. And because I was interested in whales. But mostly because it was fate. And because I chose to find out more about whaling. Hmm, contradict yourself much there, Ish?
My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries; – aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office, – to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I it. Yet is there hope. Time and tide flow wide. The hated whale has the round watery world to swim in, as the small gold-fish has its glassy globe. His heaven-insulting purpose, God may wedge aside. (38.1)
Very early in the novel, Starbuck realizes—or decides—that it will be his fate to help Ahab with his sacrilegious revenge quest, even though he knows it’s wrong. It’s possible that he has a flash vision of his future, in which he discovers what his role in this story is going to be. But it’s also possible that, at this moment, he abdicates all responsibility for his actions and hides behind "Destiny."
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Hem! clear my throat! – I’ve been thinking over it ever since, and that ha, ha’s the final consequence. Why so? Because a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always left – that unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestinated. [. . .] Well, Stubb, wise Stubb – that’s my title – well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing. (39.1)
Stubb abdicates responsibility for the fate of the Pequod even more obviously than Starbuck does. What will be will be, thinks Stubb... so I might as well enjoy myself. What a cop-out!
Conversation turning upon whales, the Commodore was pleased to be sceptical touching the amazing strength ascribed to them by the professional gentlemen present. He peremptorily denied for example, that any whale could so smite his stout sloop-of-war as to cause her to leak so much as a thimbleful. Very good; but there is more coming. Some weeks after, the Commodore set sail in this impregnable craft for Valparaiso. But he was stopped on the way by a portly sperm whale, that begged a few moments’ confidential business with him. That business consisted in fetching the Commodore’s craft such a thwack, that with all his pumps going he made straight for the nearest port to heave down and repair. I am not superstitious, but I consider the Commodore’s interview with that whale as providential. Was not Saul of Tarsus converted from unbelief by a similar fright? I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense. (45.13)
Apart from the delicious irony of this little anecdote, we’ve learned an important thing: ship commanders who don’t respect the power of whales will get their ships destroyed by angry whales. It’s too bad nobody in the novel figures that out this early, or they could save themselves a lot of hassle.
I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance – aye, chance, free will, and necessity – nowise incompatible – all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course – its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events. (47.2)
In this elaborate weaving metaphor, Melville tries to reconcile all the different aspects of fate, chance, and free will—like a theologian explaining how men can have free will even though God knows what’s going to happen. It sounds pretty good to us, but it’s awfully complicated, and we’re not sure it really solves the problem of whether or not the Pequod is fated for destruction.
[T]he graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play – this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side. (60.9)
We’re with Ishmael for the beginning of this metaphor: even though whalemen are literally sitting among lines that could strangle them, everyone is symbolically in the middle of the world’s snares. But the logic falls apart when we realize that it’s obviously a lot more dangerous to be in a whaleboat than sitting by the fire at home, and that some whale-lines really should inspire more terror than others. After all, if we accept that things are fated, that still makes some fates way worse than others.
So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering ...I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you nap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it. (72.4)
In this passage, we begin to understand that the complex webs of fate aren’t just random lines, the interconnections between different people. You can control your own fate to the extent that you can move your end of the line, but because you’re interdependent on others, they can affect you in the same way, and that can feel like predestination... or at least something out of your control.
Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver! – pause! – one word! – whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver! – stay thy hand! – but one single word with thee! Nay – the shuttle flies – the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar. (102.8)
It’s fascinating that the weaving of the world’s fate by God seems to preclude the possibility of actually hearing words, listening to people around you speak, or being able to talk to God himself. The process of working out where the world is going prevents anyone from actually communicating while it’s happening.
"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. (132.17)
Even Captain Ahab himself doesn’t really understand what’s driving him. Is he pressed onward by his own desires? By God’s decisions? After all, if you believe in God, then isn’t God responsible, directly or indirectly, for everything everyone does? And, if so, does that mean nobody is responsible for their own actions? Surely not. But Ahab doesn’t seem to be trying to claim that he isn’t responsible for what he does—he seems scared that he might not be.
Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine. (134.43)
In the previous passage, the question "Is Ahab, Ahab?" implied that the presence of a divinely ordained destiny or fate would mean that Ahab isn’t Ahab—that he’s just an extension of God’s will. But in this passage, a complete reliance on Fate goes hand-in-hand with the assertion that "Ahab is for ever Ahab." So the real question is, are we more ourselves when we behave the way we’ve been programmed to by fate, or when we defy destiny and act in unusual ways?
It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a n**** church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of "The Trap!" (2.6)
In this early chapter, Melville briefly gives us what seems like a little throwaway scene: Ishmael mistakes a black church for an inn, goes in, and has to back out in embarrassment when he sees the evening worship service. Even though this moment doesn’t advance the plot at all, it does set up the nineteenth-century racial stereotypes that the novel will deal with (and overturn) in later chapters.
I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. (3.69)
It’s interesting to think about what makes Ishmael change his mind about Queequeg at this moment. We’d like to be able to say that he realizes you can’t judge a man by his race and that common humanity is more important than racial difference. But it seems equally likely that Ishmael, ahem, liked the look of Queequeg as he got undressed and fancied a cuddle. Or that he just got tired of worrying about it and wanted to go to bed.
This accomplished, however, he turned round – when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he's a terrible bedfellow; he's been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man – a whaleman too – who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. (3.54)
Ishmael’s ignorance about racial difference, and his lack of knowledge about other cultures, mean not only that he’s horrified by the sight of skin unlike his own, but that he can hardly believe the man he’s seeing isn’t a white man who had a terrible accident. He shows both signs of being ready to think differently about race – "a man can be honest in any sort of skin" – and signs that he’s still prejudiced – such as describing Queequeg’s appearance as "unearthly."
Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black n****-savage, with a lion-like tread – an Ahasuerus to behold. Suspended from his ears were two golden hoops, so large that the sailors called them ring-bolts, and would talk of securing the top-sail halyards to them. In his youth Daggoo had voluntarily shipped on board of a whaler, lying in a lonely bay on his native coast. And never having been anywhere in the world but in Africa, Nantucket, and the pagan harbors most frequented by whalemen; and having now led for many years the bold life of the fishery in the ships of owners uncommonly heedful of what manner of men they shipped; Daggoo retained all his barbaric virtues, and erect as a giraffe, moved about the decks in all the pomp of six feet five in his socks. There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress. Curious to tell, this imperial n****, Ahasuerus Daggoo, was the Squire of little Flask, who looked like a chess-man beside him. (27.9)
There’s a lot to say about this description of Daggoo, but we’ll stick with pointing out that, as an African tribesman who "voluntarily shipped," Daggoo functions in the novel as the symbolic replacement for much more common figures who don’t show up: African-American slaves or descendant of slaves who were kidnapped from Africa and brought to the American South. Considering that Melville wrote Moby-Dick in 1851, when slavery was a major issue for America, and that this novel shows signs of considering race thoughtfully, it’s interesting that there aren’t any slaves in the story at all – just different types of stand-ins for them.
As for the residue of the Pequod’s company, be it said, that at the present day not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born, though pretty nearly all the officers are. Herein it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army and military and merchant navies, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads. The same, I say, because in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles. (27.9)
At this point, the novel’s broad-minded thinking about race seems to collapse. Casting the white American settler – who, you’ll notice, gets described as "the native American" here, thus replacing the actual Native Americans – as the "brains" and the "rest of the world" as the "muscles" creates a disturbing metaphorical hierarchy. The real question is whether this passage is meant to be ironic or not.
Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet – they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale – shirr! shirr! – but spoken of once! and only this evening – it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine – that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear! (40.47)
Pip’s first soliloquy makes us aware of all the dangers that face him as a young African-American man on board ship. He’s afraid of the storm, but even more afraid of the actions of the white sailors around him. Plus, he’s been so indoctrinated in the religious customs of white Americans that he doesn’t see himself as made in God’s image anymore. He imagines that his racial difference affects, not only his relationships with men, but his relationship with God.
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; ...yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. (42.3)
First, you should thank us for cutting out some of this sentence, which is 471 words long. Second, notice the way in which a standard expression of nineteenth-century racism, the idea that the white man has "ideal mastership over every dusky tribe," is employed here with great irony. As close readers of Melville, we’re supposed to realize by this point that it’s unlikely he’d buy completely into something like that. As a result, the entire passage, and all of Ishmael’s attempts to figure out what "whiteness" represents, are undercut.
A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; – a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere. (48.1)
Perhaps the most disturbing racial stereotype in Moby-Dick is the presentation of Fedallah, the Persian fire-worshipper who becomes Ahab’s diabolical shadow. Although the novel shows the fraternal humanity of black men, Native American men, Pacific Island men, Irishmen, Italians, Nantucketers, Chinese men, Frenchmen and many others, it somehow can’t extend that fraternity to all men without restrictions. Someone always has to get left out and turned into the scary Other.
[T]he sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious; for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, the noble n**** to every roll of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form. On his broad back, flaxen-haired Flask seemed a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though truly vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the n****’s lordly chest. So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that. (48.28)
In this tableau, Flask standing on Daggoo’s shoulders becomes a physical reminder of the structure created by the three white mates and the three non-white harpooneers on board the Pequod. In each case, the non-white man (whether Native American, Pacific Islander, or African) becomes merely a tool in the hands – or even under the feet – of the white man.
In outer aspect, Pip and Dough-Boy made a match, like a black pony and a white one, of equal developments, though of dissimilar color, driven in one eccentric span. But while hapless Dough-Boy was by nature dull and torpid in his intellects, Pip, though over tender-hearted, was at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe, which ever enjoy all holidays and festivities with finer, freer relish than any other race. For blacks, the year’s calendar should show naught but three hundred and sixty-five Fourth of Julys and New Year’s Days. Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king’s cabinets. But Pip loved life, and all life’s peaceable securities; so that the panic-striking business in which he had somehow unaccountably become entrapped, had most sadly blurred his brightness; though, as ere long will be seen, what was thus temporarily subdued in him, in the end was destined to be luridly illumined by strange wild fires, that fictitiously showed him off to ten times the natural lustre with which in his native Tolland County in Connecticut, he had once enlivened many a fiddler’s frolic on the green; and at melodious even-tide, with his gay ha-ha! had turned the round horizon into one star-belled tambourine. (93.3)
The implications of this passage are complex. Even while it shows us the greater humanity and more developed character of the black man in contrast to his white counterpart, it also employs the most hackneyed racial stereotypes (such as the idea that nineteenth-century African-Americans are constantly jolly and happy-go-lucky or that they all play the tambourine) to do so. Later, when Pip is contrasted with Ahab instead of with Dough-Boy, he’ll gain greater stature.
At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt; and presently, he drew back his arm, shook himself all over like a Newfoundland dog just from the water, and sat up in bed, stiff as a pike-staff, looking at me, and rubbing his eyes as if he did not altogether remember how I came to be there, though a dim consciousness of knowing something about me seemed slowly dawning over him. Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. (4.4)
Helped along with the erotic connotations of the "wriggling" and of being "stiff as a pike-staff," this passage reads like a scene from a film in which the main character wakes up in bed next to someone he doesn’t remember sleeping with the night before.
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair. (10.10)
As if describing them as "married" wasn’t obvious enough, Melville reminds us of that relationship by casting Ishmael and Queequeg as husband and wife.
If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. (10.7)
This is a cute little "lost in translation" moment. If someone clasps you to them and declares that you’re married, you usually don’t interpret that as meaning "best pals." So we’re forced to wonder whether Ishmael is correct, or telling the truth, when he says that "bosom friends" are all they are. It’s possible, of course, that that’s the real version of the story. It’s possible that Ishmael thinks that and Queequeg intends something else. And it’s possible that, well, they really are married—at least according to Queequeg’s customs.
I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy. I drew my bench near him, and made some friendly signs and hints, doing my best to talk with him meanwhile. At first he little noticed these advances; but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he looked pleased, perhaps a little complimented. (10.5)
Ishmael is falling in love. We can tell it’s love because the things he was prejudiced against the night before are now things that seem really attractive. Plus, he feels better about the whole world in general. Queequeg, on the other hand, just wants to know whether it was a one-night thing or not.
Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life. (59.5)
Okay, we know this doesn’t seem to fit with our first four quotations on "Sexuality and Sexual Identity," which are all about the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Still, we want to point out that the giant squid in Moby-Dick, according to mega-scholar Camille Paglia, becomes a symbol of "woman’s nonstop fertility."
Paglia explains that "[t]he squid is what Melville will not let his whale become. It is the female grossness of matter, a sticky, viscous web." We think this is an argument that could really hold some water, but even if you don’t buy it, you should know about it, because it’s super-famous. (If you want to read more about it, grab Paglia’s book Sexual Personae or a copy of the Norton edition of Moby-Dick, which includes an excerpt.)
It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before we proceed further, it must be said that the monkey-rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down to his wake. So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother; nor could I any way get rid of the dangerous liabilities which the hempen bond entailed. (72.3)
Once again Ishmael and Queequeg are shown united, this time literally by a rope around both their waists! As in previous passages that tried symbolically to describe their relationship, there’s a conflation between characteristics of marriage—"for better or for worse" they are "wedded"—and characteristics of fraternity—"Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother."
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti. (94.6)
Melville makes it clear that more men than just Ishmael should benefit from the ideal single-sex world depicted on the Pequod at some moments in the novel, such as during the squeezing of the spermaceti lumps.
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. (94.5)
In this passage, the crude jokes about sperm give way to an actual moment of transcendence, in which Ishmael feels himself united with all the men around him in an erotic brotherhood. Dang.
Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone, – longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg. And an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its likeness was. (95.1)
Yes, this is the whale’s penis. Ishmael’s talking about the giant penis of the sperm whale. And about the phallus-worship in ancient cultures. And yes, it’s supposed to be that funny.
Still New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?
Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea. (6.5-6)
Moby-Dick is all about the way that men redistribute the riches of the natural world to suit themselves. In order to make the barren landscape of New Bedford habitable and comfortable, whalemen go out and slaughter the giants of the sea. It’s important to notice that the whalemen, and men in general, aren’t able to create new wealth out of nothing. All they can do is take nature’s bounty from one place and harvest it in order to transform life somewhere else.
Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. (26.3)
Melville shows us a variety of ways that men situate themselves in relation to the natural world by describing the way that each of the mates on the Pequod thinks about whaling. Starbuck, the first mate and moral touchstone of the crew, considers whaling something that you do in order to make a living.
He’s brave when he needs to be to get his work done, but he doesn’t cherish any special vendetta against the whales. He doesn’t take pleasure in killing, but he also doesn’t make any fuss about killing when he needs to. Whaling is "just a job" for Starbuck. "Moderate" is the word that best describes his attitude.
Good-humored, easy, and careless, he [Stubb] presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box. When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair. (27.1)
Unlike Starbuck, who sees whaling as just a job to get done, Stubb responds to the dangers of whaling by behaving with a bizarre level of calm and self-assurance at all times. Even when it looks like he might die at any moment—especially then!—Stubb is humming little tunes and chilling out, as if he were slouched on the couch hanging out at home. This is partly because he’s used to the dangers that the natural world presents, but it’s also because he has to act brave to cover up his deep fears. (We’re not imagining that—he admits it later to Starbuck.)
The third mate was Flask, a native of Tisbury, in Martha’s Vineyard. A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honour with him, to destroy them whenever encountered. So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil. (27.4)
Flask responds to the dangers of the whaling voyage in a different manner than either of the other two mates, Starbuck and Stubb. For Flask, whaling is something he takes personally and gets "all het up" about on a regular basis.
Being driven by a violent grudge against whales keeps him on edge—but it also prevents him from really understanding how glorious and magnificent whales can be. Flask’s good at his job, but not very good at seeing what’s in front of him or relating himself to the natural world.
Nevertheless, ere long, the warm, warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather we came to, seemed gradually to charm him from his mood. For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (28.7)
For the first time in Moby-Dick, but certainly not the last, Ahab’s harsh exterior is softened a little bit by the influence of something as basic as the weather. Even though he’s verging on completely crazy, he can still feel the subtle, beautiful powers of nature in simple things like the breeze and the sunlight.
This is what makes Ahab different from Flask: both of them are prone to take the whale-hunt personally and get a little obsessed with vengeance, but for Flask, this aggressive attitude dulls his other senses, while Ahab remains perceptive and alive to small details. Unfortunately, even though Ahab can perceive beauty in the natural world, he’ll eventually stop being able to take pleasure in it.
[L]ulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. (35.10)
In this mystical scene, Ishmael feels himself dissolving into the natural world, losing track of the boundary between the self and the world in a very "Zen" way. The key word here, which Melville uses in the passage, is "Pantheistic." Pantheism is the belief that God and the world are the same thing. God’s not just in the world, but absolutely equivalent to it, and everything that exists is divine.
This means that the individual believer, who is also a part of the world, is a divine part of God, as well. It’s interesting to contrast the ways Ishmael feels himself to be united to all of creation and to God at this transcendent moment. It reminds us of the central tenets of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism in the mid-nineteenth century—especially of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It also reminds us how different Ishmael is from Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask.
But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous – why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? (42.25-26)
Ishmael (or the third-person narrator) reminds us once again of the many different possible reactions to the natural world. Even something as simple as the color white can inspire every possible reaction in men, from awe to fear.
The natural aptitude of the French for seizing the picturesqueness of things seems to be peculiarly evinced in what paintings and engravings they have of their whaling scenes. With not one tenth of England’s experience in the fishery, and not the thousandth part of that of the Americans, they have nevertheless furnished both nations with the only finished sketches at all capable of conveying the real spirit of the whale hunt. For the most part, the English and American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid. (56.7)
This passage might seem like an odd choice at first; after all, the chapters on different depictions of whales in various artistic media are basically just a brief aside in the enormous novel that is Moby-Dick.
But, if you think about it, the bias that Melville betrays in this passage tells us something about the entire novel. The narrator (possibly Ishmael) claims that the best pictures of whales are the ones that aren’t just of whales: they contain action and show the dynamic between human hunters on whaling ships and the whales themselves. In this novel, the most realistic depiction of Nature is one that shows the relationship between Nature and man.
It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (68.7)
Here the narrator envies the whale’s capacity to keep itself separate from its environment; its insides are, in a way, impenetrable, hardly affected by the outside world. This relates to some of the arguments made in the New Testament about what Christians should be: even though they are "in the world" they shouldn’t be "of the world" or "be conformed" to it. (We’d cite specific passages, but these phrases recur again and again in different books.) Even if you don’t interpret the whale as an allegory for the Christian believer, it’s clear that the novel depicts whales as both part of the world and intriguingly separate from it.
When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons, skulls, tusks, jaws, ribs, and vertebrae, all characterized by partial resemblances to the existing breeds of sea-monsters; but at the same time bearing on the other hand similar affinities to the annihilated antichronical Leviathans, their incalculable seniors; I am, by a flood, borne back to that wondrous period, ere time itself can be said to have begun; for time began with man. Here Saturn’s grey chaos rolls over me, and I obtain dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities; when wedged bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are now the Tropics; and in all the 25,000 miles of this world’s circumference, not an inhabitable hand's breadth of land was visible. Then the whole world was the whale’s; and, king of creation, he left his wake along the present lines of the Andes and the Himmalehs. Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s. Methuselah seems a school-boy. I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over. (104.11)
In this section, Ishmael goes from being awestruck by the whale’s ancientness to being alarmed by its ubiquity. Like the geologic record that it’s part of, the whale seems to exist in time in a completely different way than human beings do—and that’s creepy! (Of course, our perception of whales today is radically different, since they’re endangered and might actually disappear before mankind does. In Melville’s time, whales seemed more securely established.)
But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems – aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling – a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. (7.7)
Very early in Moby-Dick, Ishmael calls our attention to two very different kinds of peril: dangers to the body and dangers to the soul. He thinks that risking his life on a whaling voyage is okay because even if something destroys his ship, it can’t destroy his immortal soul. Seems like we’re being set up here for someone or something else in the novel to say, "Oh yeah? That’s what you think."
"But WHAT is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God – never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists." (9.6)
Father Mapple reminds the reader of a seldom-remembered fact about the Biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale not just for his sins, but specifically because he refused to do God’s bidding. Father Mapple reminds us that obeying God isn’t just difficult; sometimes it will actually rub us the wrong way. We’ll have to be on the lookout in this novel for someone who chooses to obey himself instead of God...
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. (10.9)
It’s hard to say whether Ishmael’s reasoning here is laughable or laudable. His open-mindedness is great, but he reasons himself around to doing something that’s specifically prohibited in his religion. And he does it in just a paragraph or so. This may be taking religious tolerance to an absurd extreme— but it might also be an example of how every religion gets the job done in the end.
I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.
I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan; – but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending. (17.1-2)
Here, Ishmael’s attitude toward religious observances once again presents a problem. On the one hand, Ishmael seems aware of the limitations of all types of fanaticism when he says "we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head."
He’s also strikingly modern when he suggests that all religions should be respected. And yet, the fact that he still refers to "pagans and what not" as "half-crazy" shows that he can’t quite kick his prejudices. The fact that he’s as willing to respect the beliefs of ants as he is of other people is a little bit insulting to other people.
After all, I do not think that my remarks about religion made much impression upon Queequeg. Because, in the first place, he somehow seemed dull of hearing on that important subject, unless considered from his own point of view; and, in the second place, he did not more than one third understand me, couch my ideas simply as I would; and, finally, he no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did. He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety. (17.29)
Turning the missionary dynamic around and making the pagan tribesman into the one frustrated because the other guy doesn’t understand his religious customs makes us see proselytizing in a whole new way.
Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him. (17.25)
Ishmael’s willing to go along with any reasonable behavior based on a faith—as long as it doesn’t become inconvenient or uncomfortable. Faithful people probably think he’s missing the point.
"I don’t know anything about Deacon Deuteronomy or his meeting," said I; "all I know is, that Queequeg here is a born member of the First Congregational Church. He is a deacon himself, Queequeg is."
"Young man," said Bildad sternly, "thou art skylarking with me – explain thyself, thou young Hittite. What church dost thee mean? answer me."
Finding myself thus hard pushed, I replied, "I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join hands." (18.10-12)
Partly, this quote is just funny, because Ishmael is showing how he can use dubious logic in order to get around Captain Bildad’s religious scruples. But there’s also a little home truth here: to Ishmael, the bond of our common humanity is more important than going to exactly the same place together one day a week.
That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality! (26.5)
Although Ishmael is often sarcastic or impious about religion, he also has moments in which he seems to feel the transcendent power of God. At this moment, he taps into that feeling of divinity in order to explain that tragedy and democracy aren’t incompatible—an important point for an American author of a tragic novel!
[I]t cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen. (41.13)
Even though the description of Moby Dick as immortal and omnipresent is given as a summary of different sailors’ superstitions, it highlights how easy it can be to read the White Whale as an allegorical stand-in for God.
Ahab seized a loaded musket from the rack (forming part of most South-Sea-men’s cabin furniture), and pointing it towards Starbuck, exclaimed: "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod. – On deck!" (109.15)
As the novel moves toward its fateful conclusion, Ahab finally says the very thing that we (and Starbuck) have been worried about: that he’s setting himself up in opposition to God. It’s too bad Ahab wasn’t there to hear Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah and how obeying God means disobeying yourself.
And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honour and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (24.22)
Even before he’s done telling the story of the Pequod, Ishmael’s already imagining the prestige that his manuscript will garner when it’s finished. Or perhaps this is a moment where Melville’s own voice shines through, and he’s thinking about his own role as the author of Moby-Dick.
Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (32.44)
Through the cracks in this quotation, we can see Melville’s anxieties about his work on Moby-Dick peeking through. Yet, the claim that the book is just a draft, or the draft of a draft, is more than just a worry that it’s not good enough. It’s a claim that all great literature and writing only begins with the author, developing its full greatness only as it persists in a culture over time.
What then remains? nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in their entire liberal volume, and boldly sort them that way. And this is the Bibliographical system here adopted; and it is the only one that can possibly succeed, for it alone is practicable. (32.25)
It’s no accident that Ishmael divides whales into categories taken from libraries. Moby-Dick is a book titled with the name of a whale, and Moby Dick is a whale that can only be understood if he’s treated like a book.
For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth requires full as much bolstering as error. So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (45.7)
Ishmael (and Melville) is highly concerned with making the underlying structure of Moby-Dick seem reasonable and even probable. He’s obsessed with creating a veneer of realism. In this passage, he claims it’s because he doesn’t want the novel interpreted symbolically.
We’re sorry to disappoint him, but some of the symbols are just too obvious. Still, it’s important to remember that part of what Moby-Dick tries to do is play down its own literariness. Of course, the other thing it tries to do is play up its literariness. But at least that creates an interesting contradiction.
Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters. (63.1)
This brief tree metaphor gives you a much better idea of how to visualize the structure of Moby-Dick than a classic plot analysis can: instead of moving from the initial situation through a conflict to a climax and denouement, we start with an initial situation, and then explode in all different directions, branching out over and over again until the novel has spread itself far and wide into many different places. There’s just one problem: how do you end a novel like that? (Well, you’ll just have to read on and see. One hint: pruning!).
In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable. (68.5)
If the whale was metaphorically like a book before, at this point it becomes a literal book, even if it’s an unreadable thanks to its incomprehensible language.
Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face, in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read if it you can. (79.6)
This is supposed to sound as though Ishmael is daring you to interpret the whale as a symbol, daring you to try as hard as you possibly can to "read" the whale’s meaning. It’s also Melville daring you to make sense of this crazy novel. We know you’re up to the challenge!
The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing – at least, what untattooed parts might remain – I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale. (102.13)
Ishmael’s close association between composing a work of literature and the body reminds us that Moby-Dick continually interprets the body as a blank page on which events write themselves. Think of Queequeg’s tattoos, or Ahab’s whalebone leg, or Starbuck’s condensed leanness. Our bodies tell our stories, so why not tell our stories on our bodies? That’s how Ishmael thinks, anyway.
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it. (104.3)
Ishmael (and Melville) are convinced that the whale itself, as a topic, makes Moby-Dick a grander and more momentous novel. Even the act of writing itself seems exaggerated by such a monstrous subject. In response, Melville creates another of those transcendent moments where man and the natural world seem to be dissolving into one another.
Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. (110.19)
We’ve gone through the whole novel assuming two things: that by the end we’d figure out what the White Whale means, and that Queequeg himself knows what his tattoos mean. But if a man can be covered all over with symbols that he has no way of interpreting, then maybe a novel can too.
"Who told thee that?" cried Ahab; then pausing, "Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye," he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; "Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!" Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave." (36.32)
Apart from the fact that Khan gets to quote some of these lines in Star Trek II, this is an important passage because it’s the first time that Captain Ahab admits that he’s on a wild quest for revenge against Moby Dick. We’re a little concerned that he’s willing to go, not just to the ends of the earth, but also to Hell itself—"perdition’s flames." If Ahab wants to pursue his white whale all the way to damnation, he might need to be careful what he wishes for.
"[B]ut what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?"
"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market." (36.34-35)
Melville immediately sets up Starbuck as a rational counterpoint to Ahab. While Captain Ahab sees revenge as an end in itself, Starbuck is always going to be there to do a broader cost-benefit analysis. It’s immediately apparently to Starbuck—and to the reader—that the sacrifices Ahab is willing to make in order to achieve his revenge literally aren’t worth the price. The Pequod could make a lot more money just hunting whatever whales it finds and staying clear of the really dangerous ones.
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"Hark ye yet again – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me." (36.38-39)
Both parts of this dialogue contain some of the most important keys to unlocking the theme of revenge in Moby-Dick. Starbuck claim that trying to take revenge on a simple animal, which isn’t capable of hatred or cruelty, is not just stupid—it’s sinful.
In response, Ahab claims that the entire world has an allegorical or neo-Platonic aspect: all things represent other things and everything happens for a purpose. Much of the tension in the novel relates to this fundamental difference in interpretation: Starbuck sees the natural world as simply there, doing its thing, and Ahab sees it as the tangible representation of "some unknown but still reasoning thing." At bottom, the issue is whether or not Moby Dick attacked Ahab with "malice aforethought," as those legal types say.
I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge. (41.1)
It’s interesting that Ishmael specifically tells us that he’s totally down with Ahab’s crazy revenge quest. It’s also interesting that he only tells us this after the chapter in which the crew swears an oath; did he forget to mention he was there while he was telling the story, or what?
Ishmael’s role as narrator and his situation as a character in the novel seem to be coming into conflict, especially because the reader probably doesn’t support Ahab as much as Ishmael claims to do. Thus, revenge divides Ishmael from the reader. From this point forward, the narrator will seem less and less like Ishmael and more and more like Melville.
Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals – morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. (41.23)
Despite the horrific, blasphemous nature of Ahab’s desire for revenge, Fate seems to have stepped in to make it possible. The composition of the crew, the temperaments of the mates—it’s all coming together for one purpose. Note the word "monomaniac" here. Melville uses this term frequently to describe Ahab’s attitude. Ahab’s not simply crazy, he’s crazy with an intense focus on a single thing, and he seems to be able to transfer that focus to the crew.
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever. (94.4)
For Ishmael, it’s possible to let the revenge quest fade away as he’s caught up in the almost sacred act of squeezing globules of solidified sperm oil. We’re not sure we could have an epiphany up to our elbows in whale grease, but hey, each to his own. Ahab, unfortunately, can’t seem to access this experience of release and purification; no comfort is possible for him. It makes us wonder what he’d do if he actually did achieve his revenge. Would he be able to relax then, or what?
"No, thank ye, Bunger," said the English captain, "he’s welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?" – glancing at the ivory leg. (100.36)
Even though Captain Boomer (the "English captain") is only in Moby-Dick for one chapter, he’s a crucial foil to Captain Ahab. Like Ahab, Boomer has lost a limb to the White Whale, but unlike Ahab, he’s able to accept this and move on with his life without getting completely obsessed. We start to realize how bizarre Ahab’s desire to take revenge on Moby Dick really is.
Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.
"No, no – no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.
"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood. (113.14-26)
Forging a harpoon in human blood in a demonic parody of the baptismal ceremony, Ahab proclaims in fancy pseudo-church Latin, "I baptize you, not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the Devil!"
Finally, he’s directly admitted (okay, saying it in Latin isn’t all that direct) that throwing away every other aspect of his life and focusing on revenge is sacrilegious. It might seem weird that he wants to use human blood to create the harpoon that will strike Moby Dick, but, if you think about it, any tool used for hunting the White Whale seems to get covered in human blood sooner or later!
"Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!" (135.58)
Some of these lines also get quoted in Star Trek II! Ahab’s declaration that he’s going to keep battling the whale with all his strength, even after he knows he’s doomed, has the same significance in both Star Trek and in Moby-Dick.
Khan goes after Kirk for the same reason Ahab goes after the White Whale: because he hates him, not because it’s a glorious quest or even because he wants to win. Khan and Ahab both do want to win, of course, but nourishing their own revenge is more important than mere victory.
From the ship’s bows, nearly all the seamen now hung inactive; hammers, bits of plank, lances, and harpoons, mechanically retained in their hands, just as they had darted from their various employments; all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. (135.55)
In the final battle scenes of the novel, Moby Dick does seem like a consciously malignant creature. The narrator (maybe Ishmael, maybe not) describes the whale as having "[r]etribution, swift vengeance, [and] eternal malice" in his face.
As we look into his eyes, we start to wonder if Ahab might have been on to something. Maybe the White Wale is malicious; maybe the seemingly unconscious behavior of the natural world does hint at something more conscious and sinister behind God’s creatures. (Wait... wouldn’t that be God?) Then again, the narrator and the sailors could be projecting their own malice onto the whale.
What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and – Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. (37.4)
Ahab’s ability to do his own psychoanalysis shows us the limits of his insanity. Even though his object is crazy, he’s able to find sane ways of evaluating and reaching it. So, if you know you’re crazy, are you crazy?
Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object. (41.20)
Insane Ahab isn’t just a different man from sane Ahab—he’s sane Ahab plus. It’s not a transformation that he goes through, but a process of addition: everything that Ahab was before, plus monomania.
The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. [. . .] All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. (41.19)
Here we’re introduced to Ahab’s monomania, his single-minded fixation on the White Whale. Basically, what’s driven Ahab crazy is that he’s not very good at symbolism. As a clever Shmoop reader, you know that things don’t just symbolize whatever you decide to make them mean; the limits of their symbolic potential are determined by context. But Ahab takes the White Whale out of context and projects onto it everything that’s enraged any human being ever.
Nothing can really hold all that symbolic weight. Not even an inscrutable white whale.
For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. [. . .] Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself. (44.11)
In this freaky sleepwalking scene, we see that Ahab’s madness has become a sort of living thing all its own, something that can inhabit his body even when his soul isn’t there. So he doesn’t have a soul tainted by vengeance; instead, his soul seems to have been imprisoned by his obsession with revenge.
He had been originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers, where he had been a great prophet; in their cracked, secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by the way of a trap-door, announcing the speedy opening of the seventh vial, which he carried in his vest-pocket; but, which, instead of containing gunpowder, was supposed to be charged with laudanum. A strange, apostolic whim having seized him, he had left Neskyeuna for Nantucket, where, with that cunning peculiar to craziness, he assumed a steady, common sense exterior and offered himself as a green-hand candidate for the Jeroboam’s whaling voyage. They engaged him; but straightway upon the ship’s getting out of sight of land, his insanity broke out in a freshet. He announced himself as the archangel Gabriel, and commanded the captain to jump overboard. He published his manifesto, whereby he set himself forth as the deliverer of the isles of the sea and vicar-general of all Oceanica. The unflinching earnestness with which he declared these things; – the dark, daring play of his sleepless, excited imagination, and all the preternatural terrors of real delirium, united to invest this Gabriel in the minds of the majority of the ignorant crew, with an atmosphere of sacredness. Moreover, they were afraid of him. [. . .] Such things may seem incredible; but, however wondrous, they are true. Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedevilling so many others. (71.8)
Ahab’s madness is contrasted with the insanity of several other characters, among them Gabriel, the self-proclaimed prophet aboard the Jeroboam. Gabriel has managed to take control of the entire ship, despite being an ordinary sailor and a crazy one at that. But his ascendancy reminds us that madness has a special persuasive force all its own, and we begin to scrutinize Ahab’s behavior a little more closely.
But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little n**** went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God. (93.13)
The moment at which Pip is driven mad is the moment at which he becomes transcendently aware of God’s presence in the natural world and as a force of destiny.
"What we come twenty thousand miles to get is worth saving, Sir."
"So it is, so it is; if we get it."
"I was speaking of the oil in the hold, Sir."
"And I was not speaking or thinking of that at all. Begone! Let it leak! I’m all aleak myself. Aye! leaks in leaks! not only full of leaky casks, but those leaky casks are in a leaky ship; and that’s a far worse plight than the Pequod’s, man. Yet I don’t stop to plug my leak; for who can find it in the deep-loaded hull; or how hope to plug it, even if found, in this life’s howling gale?" (109.6-9)
Here Ahab gives the impression that he’s capable of snapping out of his madness, or "plugging his leak," if he wanted to, but that it’s so difficult as to be nearly impossible—and he doesn’t want to anyway. It’s interesting to think about whether Ahab is indulging in his madness on purpose.
In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad? (113.4)
Again Ahab presents madness as a choice—here, he suggests that it’s the only reasonable reaction to the unreasonable suffering that human beings have to endure in the world.
"Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down."
"What’s this? here’s velvet shark-skin," intently gazing at Ahab’s hand, and feeling it. "Ah, now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne’er been lost! This seems to me, Sir, as a man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by. Oh, Sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go."
"Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. Come, then, to my cabin. Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!"
"There go two daft ones now," muttered the old Manxman. "One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness." (125.26-29)
Ahab and Pip, mad in their different ways, make an ideal pairing. Like Shakespeare's King Lear and his fool (see what Shmoop has to say on King Lear), together they become the tragic hero who falls into a bout of madness and the goofy madman who still manages to be wiser than his master.
[Ahab moving to go on deck; Pip catches him by the hand to follow.] "Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health." (129.1)
In fact, Pip is so good at touching Ahab’s heart, and making Ahab aware of uncomfortable truths about the spiritual nature of the world, that Ahab has to cast him off in order to go on with his crazy revenge quest. With Pip in the cabin and Ahab on the deck for the last section of the novel, it’s as though the captain has split into two different selves, each mad in its own weird way.