Ishmael tells us that, when pacing the quarter-deck, Captain Ahab tends to stop and stare creepily at whatever’s directly in front of him at either end of the deck.
At one end, he stares at the compass; at the other, he stares at the gold doubloon that he nailed to the mast.
One morning, Ahab gets more interested in the doubloon than ever before, and starts trying to analyze its symbolism.
The doubloon, Ishmael tells us, is a gold coin from Quito, Ecuador, a country near and named for the equator, associated with the center of the world and the bright tropical sun.
On the coin are images of three peaks of the Andes, superimposed upon which are pictures of a flame, a tower, and a crowing cock. Across the top of the coin, in the sky above the mountains, are astrological symbols, and the sun is depicted as entering Libra (the scales).
Ahab mutters an interpretation of the coin to himself: he believes that the tower, volcano, and the cock all represent himself, and the coin represents the world mirroring himself back to him. (He’s interpreted the mountain with the flame on it as a volcano.)
Starbuck, watching Ahab leave, goes over to the coin and analyzes it himself.
He sees the three mountains as the Trinity, but he also focuses on the dark valley at their base.
The sun overhead he interprets as God, who is a beacon of hope, but impossible to see if you look down—or if it’s midnight.
Then Starbuck retreats.
Stubb, who saw both Ahab and Starbuck analyze the doubloon, goes over to the coin and tries to analyze it himself.
He doesn’t really see why it’s so different from other doubloons, but he notices the zodiac and gets out his almanac to read about the meanings of the different star-signs.
He uses the almanac to turn the twelve symbols into a comical archetype of man’s life from birth to death. The sun moves through this series of symbols every year and comes out of it bright and jolly —which is how Stubb sees himself.
Stubb sees Flask coming and hides behind the try-works to listen to what he has to say about the coin.
Flask says he sees nothing but a round golden coin worth $16, which is up for grabs by whoever sees a certain whale.
$16 would buy Flask 960 cigars so he gets fired up to look for whales.
Stubb wonders whether Flask’s interpretation is wise or foolish, and then hides again because he sees the Old Manx sailor coming to interpret the coin.
The Old Manx sailor says that, if they see the white whale, it will happen in a month and a day from now, when the sun is in Leo.
Stubb continues to hide as the Old Manx sailor leaves and Queequeg comes up. Queequeg doesn’t say anything, but seems to be comparing the symbols on the doubloon to the tattoos on his body.
Queequeg leaves and Fedallah comes before the coin, to which he bows.
Stubb theorizes that Fedallah may be a fire-worshipper bowing before the symbol of the sun on the coin.
Finally, Pip, who has watched all of these interpreters, comes up to the coin.
Pip is half-crazy after his unpleasant near drowning, and at first he repeats verb conjugations out of an elementary grammar textbook.
Pip’s conjugations turn into a strange commentary on Stubb, and Stubb is so saddened and creeped out by the method in Pip’s madness that he has to leave.
With Stubb gone, Pip continues his weird rant.
Pip interprets the doubloon as the ship’s navel and suggests that everyone trying to find the White Whale and win the doubloon is trying to unscrew its navel and destroy the ship.
He predicts that someday, the mast of the Pequod will be pulled out of the ocean with the doubloon still attached, and men will wonder how it got there.