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Moby-Dick | Chapters 43–46 | Summary

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Summary

In the middle of the night Archy, one of the crew, hears a strange noise like coughing or people turning over in their sleep. He tells another man, Cabaco, that he suspects there might be someone in the after-hold not seen yet on deck.

The novel leaves Ishmael's first-person narrative again in Chapter 44, as readers are given a glimpse into what Captain Ahab does in his private cabin: he pulls out a roll of sea charts and some old log books and studies them intently, marking and erasing as he plans and revises his course. Ahab understands the food supplies of whales and their normal migratory patterns. He has heard others tell of sightings of the White Whale, and he uses all of this information as he plans an intersecting course with the likely path of Moby Dick. Ahab is so obsessed with finding the whale that he sleeps with clenched fists and often has exhausting, vivid dreams. Sometimes, it seems to him that hell has opened up below him, and he suddenly springs from his hammock and runs out of his cabin.

Ishmael informs readers in Chapter 45 that he is going to tell them some things that will help make the events of this story seem less preposterous. First, based on his own observations, at least on three occasions whales have been hit by harpoons, then escaped, only to be hit again at a later time by the same hand and killed. Second, he says that sometimes individual whales become something like celebrities—being recognized by sailors and even given names. Sometimes these famous whales are hunted specifically and killed. In addition, most people who live on land have very little idea of the dangers whalemen encounter at sea, and they have a hard time envisioning just how large whales are. He insists that sperm whales can, and have, sunk large ships, giving several examples to support this claim.

In Chapter 46, Ishmael describes the challenges Ahab faces in keeping the men devoted to his mission. Starbuck is the most likely to be trouble for Ahab, because the first mate has such a moral sensitivity. Ahab may have been a little impulsive in letting the crew know his "prime but private purpose" for the voyage so soon. For these reasons and to keep up appearances, Ahab still encourages his men to hunt sperm whales, not just Moby Dick.

Analysis

The story returns briefly to one of the remaining mysteries: Who or what is in the "after-hold" of the ship? During the "middle-watch"—the hours from midnight to 4 a.m.—the sailors on duty are filling the "scuttle-butt" with freshwater. A "butt" is a large container that holds liquid—in this case, drinking water. As they pass pails of water "in the deepest silence" from the freshwater butts to the scuttle-butt, Archy, a crewman who is standing near the after hatches, hears the sounds of someone sleeping. No one else hears this, however. For the moment, the mystery remains.

The opening line of Chapter 44 signals that it is not written from Ishmael's perspective: "Had you followed Captain Ahab down into his cabin after the squall that took place on the night succeeding that wild ratification of his purpose with his crew, you would have seen him go to a locker." Of course, Ishmael did not follow after Ahab to report his actions. Ahab is "in solitude" in his cabin. So this chapter is among those that depart from the first-person narrative. Instead, it is written in third-person omniscient.

The end of Chapter 44 contains an interesting twist on the idea that a person's body and soul are intertwined yet separate, an idea that Ishmael first introduced in Chapter 7. When Ahab bursts from his room as a result of terrifying nightmares, the text says that "crazy Ahab, the ... steadfast hunter of the white whale" was not the one who jumped up out of the hammock, but it was the "eternal, living principle or soul in him" that did this. Yet because Ahab has given "all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose," it is this purpose that becomes "a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own." In effect, Ahab's soul has become his purpose, or his purpose has become his soul. The omniscient narrator caps this fantastical description by concluding ominously—"thy thoughts have created a creature in thee."

In Ishmael's "affidavit"—his sworn testimony—he cites various facts to provide evidence that his story, no matter how outrageous sounding, is real, or at least realistic. One of these facts is the tragic story of the Essex, a real whaling ship captained by George Pollard Jr. that was sunk by a whale in 1820. While a few crew members survived the incident, adrift on the small whaleboats, they engaged in cannibalism as a means of survival. This incident was recorded in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, written by Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex. Scholars believe that this incident provided inspiration for Melville's novel.

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