Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 16 19 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 16–19 | Summary

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Summary

Ishmael goes to see the boats that are available to decide which one he and Queequeg will try to sail on. There are three ships, and he investigates each one, finally deciding that the ship Pequod—a "rare old craft"—is the best one. It is owned by Captain Peleg who tells him the captain on the voyage will be Captain Ahab, a man with only one leg, the result of an encounter with a whale. As Ishmael is signing up for the voyage, he meets the other owner, Captain Bildad. They negotiate Ishmael's wages, and Peleg describes Captain Ahab—who Ishmael has not met—as "a grand, ungodly, god-like man."

Back at the inn and locked in their room, Queequeg is observing a religious fast in Chapter 17. However, Ishmael begins to worry that something is wrong because Queequeg is so quiet and will not answer his knock. When Ishmael bursts through the locked door, Queequeg is squatting, immobile, with his little idol. Ishmael can get no response from him, but the next morning Queequeg gets up, stretches, and seems fine. They breakfast on chowder and set off for the Pequod to get Queequeg signed up.

Peleg and Bildad are suspicious of Queequeg at first in Chapter 18, but Ishmael convinces them to give him a chance. Queequeg impresses the two men with his amazingly accurate harpoon throw, and they hire him on the spot. Bildad advises him to leave his pagan ways for Christianity, but Peleg notes that "pious harpooners never make good voyagers."

In Chapter 19, Ishmael and Queequeg have just left the Pequod and are walking down the street when they encounter a man. The man asks them if they have signed on to ship out with the Pequod, and they answer yes. The man also asks them some odd questions, including whether they have seen "Old Thunder" yet. When asked about this, the man tells them he means Captain Ahab, captain of the Pequod. He goes on to make cryptic comments about Ahab. This stranger's name turns out to be Elijah. Elijah's comments and his name unsettle Ishmael a little, but after they have walked on further, he decides to dismiss them.

Analysis

In this section, readers meet Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, two retired whalemen who now own their own ship, the Pequod. They are both Quakers. The two work well together—they stage a comical "negotiation" between themselves about how much pay they will offer Ishmael, which manages to convince Ishmael to accept the 300th lay, less pay than he had expected.

The name Pequod is significant. Ishmael explains that it is the name of a tribe of Native Americans who once lived in Massachusetts. He notes that the tribe is "now extinct." Yet this seems to raise no red flags for him (as it might for the reader) as he chooses the ship anyway.

The contrast between Father Mapple's Christianity and Ishmael's makes another appearance. When Bildad asks Queequeg if he is a member of a church, Ishmael tells him (quite eloquently) that Queequeg is a member of "the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world," as is "every mother's son and soul of us." Peleg responds that Ishmael would make a good preacher, as his "sermon" was so good "Father Mapple himself couldn't beat it."

Most important, however, is that this section introduces the character Captain Ahab. First, Peleg describes Ahab in contradictory terms—both "god-like" and "ungodly." If that's not odd and unsettling enough, on the way back to the inn from the ship, Ishmael and Queequeg run into a strange character with the name of a biblical prophet. (In I Kings, the Bible says that God sent a prophet named Elijah to prophecy King Ahab's destruction.) This prophet-like stranger makes several mysterious comments that seem, to Ishmael, "ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing." Although Ahab himself will not appear in person for many chapters, already a great deal of myth and larger-than-life story has grown up around him. Ishmael is uneasy, and perhaps readers are as well.

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