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Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 20 23 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Chapters 20–23

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapters 20–23 of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick | Chapters 20–23 | Summary



A flurry of activity occurs to get the Pequod ready to sail. Ropes and canvas are brought on board as well as bedding, food supplies and equipment for eating, and spare parts of every kind needed for a three-year voyage. During these preparations, Captain Ahab is nowhere to be seen. Bildad and Peleg say that he is not well but is expected any time. Ishmael finds this suspicious but knows he has already committed to the voyage.

It is early morning when Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at the Pequod the day they are to depart in Chapter 21. As they hurry toward the ship, Elijah again confronts them with questions. He asks them if they've seen some men going toward the ship. When Ishmael replies yes, Elijah says, "See if you can find 'em now." Then he leaves. When Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, Ishmael wonders where the men he saw have gone. As the final preparations for the voyage are made, Ahab remains "invisibly enshrined" in his cabin.

As Chapter 22 begins, it is about noon and the Pequod is ready to get underway. Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, along with Mr. Starbuck, the first mate, are overseeing things because Captain Ahab is still holed up in his cabin. Ishmael continues to find Ahab's absence disconcerting. Once the Pequod is well underway, the two old captains depart onto another boat that will take them back to shore.

In Chapter 23, Ishmael notices that the pilot of the ship is a man named Bulkington, who has just returned from a four-year voyage. Ishmael devotes this short chapter to Bulkington who lives his life on the seas, saying "in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God."


This section reveals a comical difference between Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, which was glimpsed before in the interactions among the two captains and Queequeg. When Queequeg signed on to the ship, Bildad piously tried to encourage him to convert to Christianity. Here again, the reader can see that Bildad is the more religious of the two business partners. Throughout the ordeal of setting out, Bildad is "imperturbable" and sings religious songs, while Peleg shouts and kicks the sailors to get them to work faster. Clearly, Peleg is the less religious, or perhaps the more practical, of the two Quakers.

The suspense created by the missing Captain Ahab intensifies as the Pequod gets underway. All manner of excuses are made for Ahab's absence—he's ill; he's recovering; he's expected very soon; he's not really needed anyway. Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg disembark, but still Ahab is nowhere to be seen. Starbuck takes charge instead. As if that weren't enough, the mysterious Elijah makes another appearance, this time to draw the attention of Ishmael and Queequeg to the strange men who seem to board the ship and then vanish into thin air.

As the ship begins its voyage, Ishmael's meditation on life at sea, prompted by the character Bulkington, may seem out of place in a section of the text that contains so much action. But it is important to remember that Ahab's monomaniacal obsession hinges on trying to master something God has deemed too powerful for humans to vanquish, or even comprehend. While the White Whale symbolizes this in a more personal way, the sea—"indefinite as God"—does as well.

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