Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 16: The Ship

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Chapter 16: The Ship

  • That night in bed, Queequeg tells Ishmael that he’s been talking to the little black statue of his god (which, we learn, is named Yojo), and Yojo wants Ishmael to choose the ship that the two of them will sail with.
  • Ishmael’s pretty nervous about this responsibility. He was hoping Queequeg’s experience with whaling ships would help find the right one.
  • But Queequeg insists that Yojo has already found the right ship and that he’ll help Ishmael choose it.
  • The next morning, Ishmael goes out on his own.
  • It seems to be some kind of religious holiday for Queequeg, who stays at the inn fasting, smoking, and offering a sacrifice of biscuit to Yojo.
  • Ishmael finds out that there are three ships about to sail for three-year voyages: the Devil-Dam, the Tit-Bit, and the Pequod. He chooses the Pequod.
  • The Pequod is an older ship that has already been on a lot of whaling voyages. It has a lot of character, and is decorated with sea-ivory—whalebone and teeth.
  • On board the Pequod, Ishmael looks around for someone in charge. He sees a strange teepee-like tent made of whalebone on the deck and enters it, where he finds a "brown and brawny" old seaman who seems to have some authority.
  • Ishmael tells the old seaman that he wants to join the Pequod’s whaling expedition, and explains that he doesn’t have any specific whaling experience, but he has been in the merchant service before.
  • The old man scoffs—merchant service! The idea!—and asks why Ishmael wants to go whaling.
  • Ishmael says that he wants "to see what whaling is" and "to see the world" (16.18).
  • The old man asks Ishmael if he’s met Captain Ahab.
  • Ishmael is confused. He thought the old man was the captain of the Pequod.
  • The man explains that he is Captain Peleg, and that he and Captain Bildad, who are both retired, own the ship and are outfitting it with men and supplies. (It’s like their investment plan for retirement.)
  • Captain Ahab will actually be in charge of the ship on its voyage.
  • Captain Peleg tells Ishmael that Captain Ahab lost a leg to a whale, and asks if he’s still willing to go on a whaling voyage. Ishmael says that he is.
  • Ishmael’s formal manner of speaking rubs Captain Peleg the wrong way, and the Captain wonders if Ishmael is tough enough for a whaling voyage.
  • Captain Peleg asks Ishmael if he would throw a harpoon down a whale’s throat and jump after it. Ishmael says he would if it was absolutely necessary, but he thinks it could probably be avoided. This is, apparently, the right answer, which is good to know, for those of you planning to hunt the wily sperm whale.
  • Next, Captain Peleg takes on Ishmael’s desire to "see the world." He asks Ishmael to look across the bow of the ship and tell him what’s there: it’s nothing but water. Captain Peleg tells Ishmael that’s the only world he’d see on a whaling voyage.
  • Ishmael’s a little shaken by this, but remains firm on the whaling thing.
  • Captain Peleg takes him below decks to sign a contract, where Ishmael meets Captain Bildad.
  • Ishmael explains that both Peleg and Bildad are Quakers, but they’re "fighting Quakers" who have been adapted by their circumstances to be bloodthirsty seamen. (This is a little joke from Melville, because Quakers are famous for being pacifists and conscientious objectors.)
  • Captain Bildad, according to Ishmael, has stricter Quaker principles and is more obsessed with his religious foundation than Captain Peleg.
  • Ishmael thinks Captain Bildad is a little bit hypocritical, because he won’t shed the blood of men on land, but he’s slaughtered lots of whales on the sea.
  • Captain Bildad also has a reputation for working his men incredibly hard. His own body is lean and clean-shaven—there’s nothing extra or superfluous to him.
  • When Ishmael and Captain Peleg approach Captain Bildad, Bildad is sitting stiffly upright reading the Bible.
  • Peleg asks Bildad if Ishmael is an appropriate sailor for the Pequod, and Bildad gives him the okay.
  • Captain Peleg takes out a copy of the ship’s articles (the contract between the owners of the Pequod and its sailors) and a pen and starts to add Ishmael to the contract.
  • Ishmael tells the reader that he already knows a little bit about how whaling works: seamen aren’t paid wages, but they get a certain percentage of the net profits of the voyage. Ishmael has no whaling experience, but he has been to sea before, and he’s decided that he should be offered what’s called the 275th lay—at least 1/275 of the net profits. He thinks he might get something as good as the 200th lay.
  • Ishmael’s a little suspicious at this point, because he’s heard that Peleg and Bildad can be stingy, especially Bildad.
  • Peleg asks Bildad what lay Ishmael should get, and Bildad suggests the 777th lay. (This is another in-joke: 777 is a Biblical number, and Bildad is reading Matthew 6:19, which advises people not to lay up treasure on the earth.)
  • Peleg says that the 777th lay would be swindling Ishmael and suggests the 300th lay.
  • Bildad reminds Peleg that some of the investors in the Pequod are widows and orphans, and that giving Ishmael too large a share in the profits would be swindling these unfortunates.
  • Peleg and Bildad keep arguing over Ishmael’s lay, and finally Peleg seems to get so angry that he rushes at Bildad as though he’s going to attack him.
  • Ishmael is almost ready to leave and forget about whaling completely, but suddenly Bildad and Peleg both settle down and Peleg puts Ishmael down on the ship’s articles for the 300th lay.
  • Ishmael tells Peleg that he has a friend with whaling experience who also wants to voyage on the Pequod, and Peleg tells him to bring the friend (Queequeg, we miss you!) the next day.
  • Ishmael leaves, feeling pretty good about his decision—but then he realizes he’s still never met or even seen Captain Ahab.
  • He goes back and asks Captain Peleg where Captain Ahab is.
  • Peleg tells Ishmael that he can’t see Ahab at this point because Ahab has been shutting himself up alone in his house.
  • Peleg tries to describe Ahab’s virtues to reassure Ishmael, but Ahab sounds really strange and alarming: Peleg calls him "a grand, ungodly, god-like man" (16.79).
  • Ishmael suggests that the name "Ahab" has disturbing Biblical connotations. (You might want to read the story about Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21.)
  • Captain Peleg gets angry and reminds Ishmael that Ahab didn’t choose his name... but then admits that a Native American seer said that Ahab’s name would be prophetic in some way.
  • Peleg admits that Ahab has been "moody" and "savage" since he lost his leg fighting a whale, but tells Ishmael that Ahab is still a good captain, even if he is depressed and angry (16.81).
  • Ishmael leaves, feeling sorry for captain Ahab but also afraid of him. Then he forgets all about him for the time being.

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