Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 47 49 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 47–49 | Summary

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Summary

It is a lazy afternoon, and Queequeg and Ishmael are making a sword-mat at a leisurely pace. Ishmael begins to imagine they are weaving on the "Loom of Time." A strange sound startles him from this daydream, which turns out to be Tashtego's cry, saying, "There she blows!" Suddenly everyone springs into action because whales have been sighted. As they rush about getting the boats ready, they suddenly see that Captain Ahab is surrounded by five mysterious figures.

In Chapter 47, these mysterious "phantoms" begin to ready one of the spare boats for use. Ahab calls one Fedallah, who seems to be the leader. Fedallah and his men get into the fourth boat as the other three boats are also deployed, with Ishmael as an oarsman on Starbuck's boat. Stubb and Starbuck (and Archy) realize that the newcomers must be stowaways Ahab brought along in secret. Clearly they are there to help Ahab on his quest. The four boats maneuver to try to get near the whales, and in the midst of this vigorous chase, Starbuck's boat is capsized. Hours later, the men are rescued.

By Chapter 49 it has been a long, cold night for Ishmael as he awaits rescue with the other men on Starbuck's boat. He asks Queequeg if this sort of thing often happens during whaling, and finds out it is not uncommon. He asks Stubb if Starbuck is really as cautious as people say, and Stubb confirms this. Because Ishmael was on Starbuck's boat and still was in grave danger, Ishmael decides to make a will.

Analysis

Weaving reminds Ishmael of the Fates of Greek mythology who spin, measure, and cut the thread of each person's life. He identifies the warp of the loom—the long threads through which the weaver passes another thread to create an interwoven fabric—as necessity. These threads are "unalterable"—the part of destiny a person cannot change. So, says Ishmael, his own actions and choices are like moving the shuttle that pulls the thread through the warp: "I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads." So, part of destiny is the unalterable necessity, and part is a person's own actions.

There's a third aspect of destiny, however, as Ishmael explains. This is symbolized in his extended metaphor by Queequeg's seemingly random strokes with his sword as he pushes the threads together. Ishmael summarizes his metaphor, saying, "The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course ... free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance" that "has the last featuring blow at events."

As if to provide an example of destiny—and the way necessity and chance may force a course of events—the weaving and philosophizing is interrupted by the sighting of a whale. And to provide an illustration of how one man's free will can also influence events, Captain Ahab's hand-picked crew, until now hidden in the after-hold, suddenly appears. The reactions to this appearance are diverse: Archy gets to say, "I told you so" to his crewmate Cabaco, who hadn't believed Archy's insistence that there were men in the after-hold. Stubb says "the more the merrier," while Starbuck is convinced the whole thing is "a sad business."

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