Moby Dick
Herman Melville
Contributed by Jerrold Mcmenamin
Chapter 126–132
Summary

Chapter 126: The Life Buoy

As the Pequod nears the equatorial fishing ground, the sailors hear wailing mermaids or ghosts. The Manxman informs the sailors that these are the voices of the recently drowned men in the sea. Ahab mocks this nonsense, suggesting the men that they have passed a seal colony in the night. Many of the men are superstitious about seals and Ahab’s explanation helps little to allay their fears. In the morning, a crew members falls from the masthead. Immediately, the life buoy is thrown in, but it is old and dried out, as a result, it fills with water, and the man drowns. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask now replace the life buoy with Queequeg’s coffin.

Chapter 127: The Deck

This chapter is in the form of a theatrical dialogue followed by a long soliloquy from Ahab. The carpenter is not happy about having to transform the coffin into a buoy. Aware of the irony of the substitution, Ahab calls the carpenter “unprincipled as the gods” for going through with it. He calls out Pip to discuss with him the “wondrous philosophies” of the situation as he has had an experience in the ocean and the duo shares a close bond of friendship.

Chapter 128: The Pequod meets the Rachel

In pursuit off Moby Dick, the Pequod next encounters the Rachel. Ship captain Gardiner affirms that he has indeed seen Moby Dick. He climbs aboard Ahab’s ship and begs Ahab to help him find his son whose boat was lost in the chase after the white whale. Ahab is not interested in helping him as it would lead to a lot of wastage of his time.

Chapter 129: The Cabin

Ahab knows that Moby Dick is near; he spends much of his time walking the decks. One night, Pip follows him and assures Ahab that he won’t abandon him. Ahab orders Pip to stay in the captain’s cabin because his emotional outburst and insanity is likely to evoke compassion in him for the boy. This could potentially distract him from his single-minded obsession.

Chapter 130: The Hat

Fedallah follows Ahab like a shadow and the duo remain on deck, ever watchful. During this time, there is a stifled silence on the ship and the crew falls into this routine. This continuous watch heightens Ahab’s obsession and he decides that he must be the first one to sight the whale. Ahab orders Starbuck to help him get up the main mast and watch his rope. While Ahab is up there looking for the whale, a black hawk appears from nowhere and steals his hat; Ishmael considers it a bad omen.

Chapter 131: The Pequod meets the Delight

The Pequod then runs into another whaling vessel, the Delight. It is miserably misnamed, given the circumstances it has encountered. The vessel has previously encountered Moby Dick with an unpleasant result of a wrecked whale boat and dead crew members. As the Pequod passes by, the Delight drops a corpse in the water. The Delights crew makes a remark upon the coffin-life buoy at the Pequod’s stern. For them, it is obvious that the coffin is a symbol of doom.

Chapter 132: The Symphony

Ahab and Starbuck share stories about their wives and children. The lonely captain is sad about his wearying quest for Moby Dick. Ahab thinks of himself as a fool and feels miserable for himself. Starbuck honestly suggests that he give up the chase but Ahab doubts that he can stop, feeling driven by fate. As Ahab is mulling about this great dilemma, Starbuck leaves quietly in despair. When Ahab goes to the other side to gaze into the sea, Fedallah too looks over the rail.

Analysis

This section prepares the reader and the Pequod’s crew for the climax as the final confrontation with Moby Dick looks all set. As the narrative progresses, the atmosphere of doom and the feelings of inevitability grow stronger. The sailors, and the reader as well, are kept guessing as to which events are fulfilling the prophecies of catastrophe and which are in themselves the prophecies of impending disasters. It appears that there is certain ambiguity between fate and its causality. The Rachel and the Delight episodes confirm that an encounter with Moby Dick is both fated and sure to be fatal. In the light of these situations, the justification for Ahab’s quest seems foolhardy and suicidal. Given that the upcoming encounter is sure to be doomed, events and objects turn into symbols rather than as causes. Episodes like Pequod’s “baptism” as it is splashed by the corpse thrown from the Delight and the coffin attached to the Pequod’s stern typify this symbolism. The Pequod has undergone remarkable changes since it began its voyage; most notable is the subversion in its power structure. Pip, earlier a minor character, is now sitting “in the ship’s full middle". Ahab tells Pip to sit in his chair as if Pip “were the captain". Pip is surprised that “a black boy should play host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!” He knows that a young black man like him typically serve older white men like Ahab. It is not clear whether Ahab is in complete control anymore. He asks himself:

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?

In a rare instance of questioning his obsession, Ahab wonders about his free will and his identity. At the same time, he is aware of the folly of his quest and the fact that an unknown force is compelling him to pursue it.

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