Chapter 16: The Ship

Well, I’ve got my work cut out for me today. This recent run of chapters has been easy, I even had to go off on a wild tangent of my own to find any substance in the last one. But this one? There’s just… there’s a lot. There’s a lot in sheer number of words, in different tones, themes, and just in moving parts, compared to other chapters, in general.

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So, this’ll probably be a long one. Be forewarned!

SUMMARY: Ishmael heads off to pick out a whaling ship to join up with, having been charged with that sole duty by Queequeg’s god, Yojo. He examines three ships, and decides he likes the look of the Pequod the best. One of the owners, Peleg, tries to scare him off from whaling, but Ishmael is persistent, and Peleg agrees to sign him up. They go belowdecks to meet the other owner, Bildad, and negotiate Ishmael’s pay. The owners also agree to sign up Queequeg, so Ishmael promises to return with him the next day.


Man, where to start with all this? I suppose the beginning is the most logical.

Ishmael was counting on having Queequeg’s help with picking out a ship to join, but he is tasked to do it alone by Yojo, who has been mentioned before in the book (if not on this blog) as the god whose idol Queequeg carries around. There is some conflation here and elsewhere of the idol itself and the thing that it represents, which is actually another biblical motif, or at least idea of how paganism works that is drawn directly from the bible.

In the Book of Daniel, there are several stories basically making fun of the Babylonians for worshiping idols. They offer the idea that the idols are actually just statues, not gods or even living things, and thus obviously can’t accept offerings or answer prayers or anything like that. These sorts of arguments show up more as the Jewish people struggle with their own habits of idolatry through the years.

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This strikes me as an extremely weak argument that is so easily refuted that it’s incredible that it is ever taken seriously by anyone. The idols are not literally the gods themselves, that’s ridiculous. They are merely representations that act as conduits to conduct offerings and prayers to the gods, who are mysterious and spiritual and non-physical and whatnot. The actual substance of a lot of those passages in the old testament of the bible really add up to saying “our god can make things happen in the world because it is real, unlike your gods, who are fake,” and nothing more. You’re not supposed to draw serious theological arguments from this, they’re just jokes making fun of people who believe different things than you.

Anyway, this isn’t super relevant to the text of this chapter, but is just something it brought to mind. The way Yojo is referred to and treated, it seems more like a sort of animistic spirit rather than an actual full-fledged god. Queequeg values his advice, but knows that he isn’t always reliable. This sort of casual interaction with religion is a lot easier when you’re not dealing with absolutes all the time. Yojo doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthy of a little bit of worship, here and there.

What his advice, in this case, amounts to is a bit of fairy tale-ish logic. Yojo has already picked out a ship from the three in the docks, and he believes that Ishmael will definitely pick out the same one if he goes alone. It’s a sort of test to make sure that he’s worthy, that his powers of discernment are up to the task. We’ve seen so far that Queequeg can be extraordinarily stubborn, and Ishmael is respectful of his wishes, so he agrees to go off alone.

So, the three ships Ishmael finds are the Tit-bit, the Devil-Dam, and the Pequod. Tit-bit is apparently a more archaic form of “tidbit”, and just means a little bit of something, particularly food. Ishmael has no idea what a Devil-Dam is, and neither do I, with the comparatively omniscient power of the internet at my disposal, so we’ll leave it at that. And finally, Pequod (or Pequot) is a tribe of native americans, which Ishmael refers to as being “now extinct as the ancient Medes”, which is not in fact the case. The exist even today! Mostly around upstate New York and Connecticut.

Believe it or not, the “ancient Medes” is yet another biblical reference. They were from what is now known as Iran, and had a great empire for a couple hundred years between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE. They are mentioned in the Book of Daniel, where Darius the Mede conquers Babylon while the Jews are in captivity there. They are later rescued by the messiah predicted in the Book of Isaiah, the great hero of the Jewish people who finally returned them to the Promised Land and allowed them to rebuild the Temple.

Yes! The great savior of Judaism, still widely recognized to this day: Cyrus the Great! The great king and successor to the ancient legacy of Babylon whose liberal treatment of minority religion was a boon to the Jewish people after a long epoch of captivity and deprivation.

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Getting back to the text, one of my favorite details is the description of the Pequod, which has never, to my knowledge, really been replicated in art, at least not to my satisfaction:

But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed. Old Captain Peleg, many years her chief-mate, before he commanded another vessel of his own, and now a retired seaman, and one of the principal owners of the Pequod,—this old Peleg, during the term of his chief-mateship, had built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over, with a quaintness both of material and device, unmatched by anything except it be Thorkill-Hake’s carved buckler or bedstead. She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.

It is decorated all over with whalebone and ivory! Anywhere it could possibly be used, it has been. It doesn’t even have a wheel, but a tiller made from the gigantic jawbone of a sperm whale! Every time I see the Pequod, it is portrayed as merely a regular whaling ship, completely ordinary without any special decoration. Perhaps that is simply because that is all an artist has to go on. You visit the island of Nantucket to do some research, and you see there a Real Live Whaling Ship, just like they used to use! You take some photos for reference, copy it down, and you’re done. The Pequod is a whaling ship, that’s what a whaling ship looked like, good enough!

But, as the great John Hodgman famously said, “Specificity is the soul of narrative.” That may be enough novelty for a modern adaptation, simply seeing what whaling ships were really like, but in Melville’s day they were dime-a-dozen. What makes this whaling ship special among all the Tit-Bit‘s and Devil-Dam‘s of the world? What is it about it that draws Ishmael’s attention? It is important that the Pequod is decked out in this fashion. If you deny this, then you are effectively saying that this whaling trip is one just like any other. That the relevant part of this story is its shocking conclusion, and nothing more. It is a glancing, shallow sort of interpretation that only takes the barest premise of this book.

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Perhaps that’s a bit uncharitable, the attention of visual artists and other interpreters may simply be elsewhere. Upon the crew or the deeper philosophical themes, rather than mere appearances. Mayhap they would call me the shallow one for being so caught up in it! But it strikes me so, for being described in such affecting prose, and it is hereafter often referred to as “the ivory Pequod,” for it’s decoration.

The Pequod being decorated so extensively shows that it has a long history in the hunt for whales, and has been very successful. It establishes its seriousness, its longevity, and gives it a sort of gravity in the narrative. This isn’t just a fun jaunt on any old whaling ship, this is participation in a tradition. The character of the ship itself matters just as much as that of any character, I say! And it is a morbid sort of character, yet also triumphant. Think of a hunting lodge, with its walls all covered in trophies. But in an even more serious and business-like way, it says that this ship is the enemy of whales everywhere. It has killed whales many times before, and intends to continue doing so.

Moving on, we meet one of the owners of this ship, a Quaker named Peleg. This is, naturally, another biblical name, this time going way back to the Book of Genesis. Peleg is one of the ancestors of the Israelites, who was alive when the “world was divided”. This is usually interpreted as him being around when the Tower of Babel was built and then destroyed by God, thus creating different languages and preventing humans from cooperating on such a scale ever again. All we know about Peleg is that he was the son of Eber, he had many sons and daughters, and lived to be 239 years old, as people did in those days (according to the Bible). So, Peleg is a witness to a great calamity, as this one shall be, in some way.

Peleg is a Quaker, a sect of Christianity also known as the Religious Society of Friends. They have all sorts of fascinating beliefs and a rich history which I would invite you to look into for yourself, as I simply cannot get into it now, this post is already very long and I’m not even halfway through the chapter. For the purposes of reading this book, suffice it to say that they are a religious group prevalent in New England, they are generally conservative in social custom, dress, and language, bordering on archaic, and are staunch pacifists.

The concept of Quakerism here serves as a contrast to the life of a whaleman. Peleg has been changed by his former whaling ways, and has become more of a sailor. He is rough and colloquial and jokes and cajoles Ishmael in a friendly way. He even tries to convince Ishmael not to join the forthcoming whaling voyage, telling him that it’s hard, dangerous work and that “seeing the world” from the desk of a ship is really nothing special. Ishmael is ultimately not deterred, though he is a bit taken aback by the notion that the ship won’t actually be seeing anything that he couldn’t see from the deck right then and there: lots of water, and a storm on the horizon.

They go belowdecks and meet Bildad, which I am sure you are unsurprised to learn is a name that Melville has drawn from a biblical source. In this case, it from the Book of Job, one of Job’s friends who tries to comfort him after all his calamities, but ends up accusing him of wickedness. A bit more severe character, as in Moby Dick, who is always assuming fault in others and sees the worst in the world in general.

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Bildad is another former whaler, now part-owner of the Pequod, who has not been changed by his experiences one single bit. He is a man of incredible, intense character, always perfectly dressed and exact in all things. He is reserved, but resolute. But, he actually makes a good straight man, of sorts, for Peleg. Indeed, this whole chapter is riven through with a bit of comedy, especially in these scenes.

I have referred to Peleg and Bildad as part-owners, and that much is true, but I think it’s time now to get into the thematic elements of this book as they connect to capitalism. The Pequod itself is owned by many, many different people and associations on the island of Nantucket. Peleg and Bildad are the sort of Chief Owners, who have the knowledge to actually see to the running of the ship when it is in port. The investment comes in the form of tiny bits of money from myriad sources, a few dollars here and there from widows and orphans. Thus, the profits that aren’t given to the crew as payment are used to support the victims of the very business that the ship engages in!

It is a sort of self-perpetuating system. The investors need the dividends from a successful voyage, because of accidents from voyages of the past. The ship’s voyages can never stop, as it generates more investors as it goes. The bodies of the crew are sacrificed to pay off the debts of the sacrifices of the past! Ah, what a horrific business it is, a microcosm of every business under a capitalist system.

Goodness gracious, I skipped over more of the interesting aspects of both Peleg and Bildad… but, I’ll have time to get back to them in other chapters. There’s one last little bit I want to get into, a passage where Peleg is describing the captain of the Pequod, Ahab (another biblical name!):

Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab’s above the common; Ahab’s been in colleges, as well as ’mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales. His lance! aye, the keenest and the surest that out of all our isle! Oh! he ain’t Captain Bildad; no, and he ain’t Captain Peleg; he’s Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!

This is some good shit right here. It’s practically right out of a fantasy novel! “Stranger foes than whales”? What could that mean in this context? The mind reels! Here we are already building up Ahab as a sort Hero in an epic mold. Much like the Pequod is not a common whaling ship, Ahab is not a common captain. This book is not going to dismiss him, as many summaries do, as merely “mad” or “obsessed with revenge”. No, no, it goes much deeper, much more grand, and is far more interesting than that.

And consider! “Fantasy” was not even a genre that existed yet, when this book was written. This kind of wordplay meant something entirely different back then than what it may seem to you and me. Something more out of ancient myth, or the Bible. Modern genres often work through repetition of received tropes, without examining their origins in proper context. Again, it isn’t really fair of me to accuse them of doing this, Melville is probably partaking in a bit of that himself. He is using all this biblical language and imagery to build up a mythic gravity to his story, the specificity of the references may or may not actually be intended or important.

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But, as readers and interpreters of his words, we can ascribe anything we like to it. You can go as deep or as shallow as you please. This is the great aspect of this book, the thing that keeps me coming back time and time again. It contains so much, and it works on many different levels of engagement. But it requires the ability to do as Ishmael does. To take things seriously, to try to understand them, to really sit down and think about what passes before your eyes.

It would be easy to make this book an absolute misery. I don’t think it should ever be taught in high school, and I’m glad I was not forced to read it. It is something you should engage with in the same way that Ishmael decides to go whaling: out of pure curiosity, untainted by obligation.


You can’t say I didn’t warn you, it was indeed very long. And I didn’t say as much as I could, there’s a lot to get into with regards to Quakerism and the whaling business, Bildad, various prophecies, more on capitalism, and so on. But, it’s a long book, and these topics will come up again. This is a big chapter, which introduces a lot of ideas, and has a lot happening. It’s worth going in depth, from time to time.

Next up is some more Queequeg content! I may also talk even more about theology, it’s coming up way more than I ever thought it would.

Until next time, shipmates!


Image Credits:

The Charles W Morgan (2014), courtesy of Mystic Seaport.

The Tablet of Shamash, author and date unknown.

La clémence de Cyrus II le Grand envers les Hébreux (1470), by Jean Fouquet.

Cutaway of the Pequod, your guess is as good as mine.

Job Speaks to his Friends (1866), by Gustave Dore.

The goblins fell back a little when he began to make horrible grimaces all through the rhyme (1920), by Jessie Willcox Smith.

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