_____A confession: I tend to skim action scenes in novels, often because that's what the writer wants you to do -- race eagerly ahead to see who makes it out alive. And when the scene is all at sea, so am I. Sea action is so multidimensional -- horizontal, vertical, forward, backward, lateral, not to mention temporal -- that even when it's well written it's hard to make sense of. So for me much of the pursuit of the whale in Chapter XLVIII is a blur.
First of all, however, Melville has to introduce the mysterious figures who appeared at the end of the last chapter. Their leader, whose name, we learn, is Fedallah, is "tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from [his] steel-like lips." He wears black -- a "Chinese jacket" and "wide black trowsers.... But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head." The other four men are "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." There's very little mitigation of Ishmael's racial stereotyping of these South Asian figures -- "the Manillas" presumably refers to the Philippines. Fedallah remains a sinister figure who "half-hissed" his reply when Ahab asks if he's ready. The crew is so stunned by the appearance of "the swart Fedallah and his crew" that they are slow to respond to commands to launch their boats.
Ishmael now realizes the identity of "the mysterious shadows I had seen creeping on board the Pequod during the dim Nantucket dawn," and he also recalls "the enigmatical hintings of the unaccountable Elijah." Ishmael is in Starbuck's boat, so he overhears an exchange between Starbuck and Stubb when their boats are alongside each other: Stubb asks, "What think ye of those yellow boys, sir!" and Starbuck replies, "Smuggled on board, somehow, before the ship sailed.... A sad business, Mr. Stubb!" But Starbuck keeps his attention on the business at hand, with Ishmael noting, "he had rather a peculiar way of talking to them in general.... He would say the most terrible things to his crew, in a tone so strangely compounded of fun and fury, and the fury seemed so calculated merely as a spice to the fun, that no oarsman could hear such queer invocations without pulling for dear life, and yet pulling for the mere joke of the thing." He commands the loyalty of his crew in ways unavailable to the obsessed and terrifying Ahab.
The whales have "settled bodily down into the blue," so everyone is intent on spotting them. Flask, the shortest of the mates, climbs onto the shoulders of Daggoo to get a better view. "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 negro's lordly chest." But it is Tashtego, Stubb's harpooner, who sights the whales again. "The air suddenly vibrated and tingled, as it were, like the air over intensely heated plates of iron. Beneath this atmospheric waving and curling, and partially beneath a thin layer of water, also, the whales were swimming."
Starbuck commands his rowers to pull "in the lowest possible but intensest concentrated whisper ...; while the sharp fixed glance from his eyes darted straight ahead of the bow, almost seemed as two visible needles in two unerring binnacle compasses." Flask, by contrast, begins shouting "and finally fell to rearing and plunging in the boat's stern like a crazed colt from the prairie." Stubb takes note of Flask's "fit," and urges his men to keep rowing. "But what it was that inscrutable Ahab said to that tiger-yellow crew of his -- those were words best omitted here; for you live under the blessed light of the evangelical land."
It was a sight full of quick wonder and awe! The vast swells of the omnipotent sea; the surging, hollow roar they made, as they rolled along the eight gunwales, like gigantic bowls in a boundless bowling-green; the brief suspended agony of the boat, as it would tip for an instant on the knife-like edge of the sharper waves, that almost seemed threatening to cut it in two; the sudden profound dip into the watery glens and hollows; the keen spurrings and goadings to gain the top of the opposite hill; the headlong, sled-like slide down its otehr side; -- all these, with the cries of the headsmen and harpooners, and the shuddering gasps of the oarsmen, with the wondrous sight of the Ivory Pequod bearing down upon her boats with outstretched sails, like a wild hen after her screaming brood; -- all this was thrilling.But Starbuck's boat gets separated from the others in the thickening mist as a squall comes up. Starbuck sights a whale, and Queequeg throws his harpoon. But whale and weather overwhelm the boat, whose "sail collapsed and exploded" as "something rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us. The whole crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the white curdling cream of the squall. Squall, whale, and harpoon had all blended together; and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped." Fortunately, the boat is almost undamaged and the crew recovers the oars and manages to get back aboard. But the storm is on them. Starbuck manages to light a lantern and hand to Queequeg "as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope."
Dawn comes as the crew waits, "drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat," but suddenly the Pequod is approaching so fast that they have to dive from the boat and swim away. The ship passes over the boat, but when it bobs up again they "swam for it, were dashed against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on board." The other boats had returned before the squall came up. "The ship had given us up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of our perishing, -- an oar or a lance pole."
The brush with death puts Ishmael in the mood "when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own." He asks Queequeg, "does that sort of thing often happen?" and is assured that it does. He asks Stubb if "going plump on a flying whale with our sail set in a foggy squall is the height of a whaleman's discretion?" and is told that Stubb has "lowered for whales from a leaking ship in a gale off Cape Horn." And he asks Flask if it's the practice "for an oarsman to break his own back pulling himself back-foremost into death's jaws?" and gets the reply, "I should like to see a boat's crew backing water up to a whale face foremost. Ha, ha! the whale would give them squint for squint, mind that!" So Ishmael decides it's time he made his will, and asks Queequeg to be "lawyer, executor, and legatee." Having done that, "I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault."
Stubb expresses amazement at Ahab's courage in going out in a whaleboat with a wooden leg. Flask replies that it might be different if Ahab had lost his whole leg, "but he has one knee, and good part of the other left, you know." Stubb isn't so sure about that: "I never yet saw him kneel."
But the question remains whether the captain of a ship has any business putting his own life in danger by participating in the chase, especially one so handicapped as Ahab. That, it seems, is the reason for Ahab's hiring a secret crew: The owners of the Pequod would never have approved of his getting into a whaleboat during the hunt. "Therefore he had not solicited a boat's crew from them, nor had he in any way hinted his desires on that head." He had gone ahead and done it himself without their knowing of it. He had also made sure that the boat he planned to use had been reinforced in the bottom to "better withstand the pointed pressure of his ivory limb." And he had spent time personally working on the fittings of the boat to make it better suited to his prosthesis. The crew had suspected from this that he was planning to "hunt that mortal monster in person," but it had no idea that there was a secret crew waiting to aid him.
The other members of that crew, "the subordinate phantoms," became a part of the regular crew, but the "hair-turbaned Fedallah remained a muffled mystery to the last."
He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, and that but dimly; but the like of whom now and then glide among the unchanging Asiatic communities, especially the Oriental isles to the east of the continent -- those insulated, immemorial countries, which even in these modern days still preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth's primal generations, when the memory of the first man was a distinct recollection, and all men his descendants, unknowing whence he came, eyed each other as real phantoms, and asked of the sun and the moon why they were created and to what end; when though, according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.There's an irony here that Ishmael, named for the biblical outcast often identified as the progenitor of the Arab peoples, should indulge in his own kind of Orientalism, akin to the prejudice that gave rise to the fear of the "yellow peril." Fedallah becomes indistinguishable from such sinister Asians as Dr. Fu Manchu.
"Days, weeks passed" until one night, in the waters south of St. Helena, Fedallah spots the spout of a whale: "Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea." Fedallah had been taking the watch on the main-mast at night, when the regular crew usually doesn't take that observation because hunting whales at night is uncommon. So when "his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew." Ahab orders full sail toward the sighting, and the description of the onrushing ship is magnificent:
The strange, upheaving, lifting tendency of the taffrail breeze filling the hollows of so many sails, made the buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air beneath the feet; while still she rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling in her-- one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal.But "the silvery jet was no more seen that night." It returned again several nights later and again "night after night, till no one heeded it but to wonder at it." Naturally, some of the sailors begin to speculate that "that unnearable spout was cast by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick. For a time there reigned, too, a sense of peculiar dread at this flitting apparition, as if it were treacherously beckoning us one and on, in order that the monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the remotest and most savage seas."
The seas grow rougher as they round the Cape of Good Hope, and the sailors secure themselves to the rail as they're buffeted by the sleety winds. "Few or no words were spoken; and the silent ship, as if manned by painted sailors in wax, day after day tore on through all the swift madness and gladness of the demoniac waves." Ahab stays on deck most of the time, but one night Starbuck goes into the cabin to check the barometer and finds the captain asleep in his chair, his head back as if he's looking at the compass needle in the ceiling. "Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose."
Southeast of the Cape, the Pequod encounters a whaleship called the Goney (a name for the albatross) that is heading home after four years at sea. Ahab calls out, "Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?" But when the other captain goes to reply, he drops his speaking-trumpet into the sea. The crew of the Pequod regard it as a bad omen. The winds make it too dangerous to lower a boat so they can exchange visits. Ahab calls out and tells them that the ship is the Pequod. "Tell them to address all future letters to the Pacific ocean! and this time three years, if I am not at home, tell them to ---" But he breaks off when he notices that the schools of fish that have been following the Pequod have "darted away with what seemed shuddering fins, and ranged themselves fore and aft with the stranger's flanks. Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, ye, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings. 'Swim away from me, do ye?' murmured Ahab, gazing over into the water."
Ishmael asserts that even if the weather hadn't prevented his going on board the Goney, he wouldn't have do so after getting a negative answer to his question about Moby Dick. Whaleships meeting at sea routinely exchange visits when they encounter each other, to exchange letters to and from home and to share new. Such a meeting is called a "gam." "It was not very long after speaking [to] the Goney that another homeward-bound whaleman, the Town-Ho, was encountered." I've written about "The Town-Ho's Story" before, in an entry for the Great Short Works of Herman Melville, so I won't repeat what I said there. It was originally published separately, and it lifts out of the context of Moby-Dick easily. But in context it gives us a closer glimpse of Moby Dick himself. It also has a fascinating "layered" quality to it: It's a story within a novel, but a story told to a man (Tashtego) who is not supposed to tell it to others but is forced to do so when he tells it in his sleep, and then in the context of the novel, Ishmael retells it at a remove: telling how he told it to another group of listeners, who are not characters in the novel. Why this intricate narrative device? Perhaps because it's a story in which key details are veiled -- the enigmatic relationship between Steelkilt and the captain, which hinges on whispered things that are never revealed to the reader. Melville is telling us that narrative is all about the things that people want to keep hidden, just as the original narrator of "The Town-Ho's Story" tried to make Tashtego not pass the story on. Secrets will out, but sometimes the meaning of them remains hidden, just as what Steelkilt whispered to the captain remains hidden.