Chapter 99: The Doubloon

Hoo boy, this is a big one.

I’ve really got my work cut out for me this time ’round. This is a very important and fascinating chapter, and has been the subject of a lot of study and discussion over the years. It’s not hard to see why, there’s obviously a lot going on here, and I will do my level best to untangle it, and perhaps offer a bit of my own commentary on top of all the others.


Ishmael describes the doubloon nailed to the mast, a pure gold coin from Ecuador, with three mountain peaks, each with a different symbol at the top: a flame, a tower, and a crowing cock. The zodiac appears above these, with the sun right in the middle of it, on top of Libra.

Ahab approaches the doubloon and goes into a soliloquy, describing his interpretation of it: the doubloon is a mirror, every man sees himself in the symbols of power and prestige atop the mountains.

Starbuck approaches the doubloon and goes into a soliloquy, interpreting the symbols as representing almighty God, surrounding all of them and protecting them, in the end, from the mad quest the coin represents.

Stubb approaches the doubloon, and doesn’t quite understand the symbols on it, fetching an almanac from his cabin to help interpret it. Ultimately he takes the zodiac symbols as a metaphor for a human life. He hangs around to see what his crewmates think of it.

Flask approaches the doubloon, and wonders at its monetary value, working out how many fine cigars it could buy him. He immediately climbs the mast to keep an eye out for Moby Dick, so that he might win the prize.

The old Manxman approaches the doublon, using it to predict the future date when the ship will finally encounter the white whale, landing on some time in August.

Queequeg approaches the doubloon, and compares the symbols on it to those tattooed on his body, seemingly finding a match for Saggittarius. He dismisses the coin and walks off again.

Fedallah approaches the doubloon, and bows to it reverentially.

Finally, Pip approaches the sign, and begins babbling to himself. Stubb, still feeling guilty about what happened to the boy, takes his leave, not wanting to hear more. Pip accurately foretells the doom of the ship, saying that the mast will end up at the bottom of the ocean, and the coin will be left entwined with the rot and decay forevermore, until this wreck is someday salvaged, on Judgment Day. Nobody hears him, or pays him any mind.


Hey, these guys are horning in on my bit! I’m supposed to be the one offering analysis of symbolism here. I guess it falls to me to further analyze the analysis, which has already been analyzed by multiple vectors. In fact, before getting into the nit and grit of these various interpretations, let’s talk about the interesting structure of this chapter.

The Roving Camera

As you have probably noticed, most of this book is narrated by an older Ishmael, recalling his time on the Pequod, recording his experiences and interpretation for posterity, and perhaps working through his grief at the same time. However, there had been a couple of points in the past where the perspective shifts to a more objective one; particularly when we gain access to the inner thoughts of the enigmatic Captain Ahab.

This chapter plays a similar trick. We start off with regular ol’ Ishmael narration, describing the coin and how it fits into Ahab’s daily routine of pacing the quarter-deck. Then we shift to Ahab’s soliloquy, which could be something Ishmael overheard, or just something he imagines. Ishmael’s commentary fades away, as we hear from Starbuck.

Then, Stubb basically takes over narration duties from Ishmael, giving us a running commentary over the rest of the visitors to the shrine of the golden coin. But then, in the end, he too is shamed into retreat, by the appearance of Pip, who offers his words only to the unseen audience.

It feels very much like a stage play, with different character wandering out and offering their thoughts directly to the audience, one after another. But it also reminds me of a wandering camera, in a single-shot scene in a film. Moving from person to person, following them for a little bit, giving us a taste of their perspective, then moving on again. Stephen King is famous for using this technique, perhaps he picked it up here!

As for why it’s done this way, besides being very fun to get narration from the motor-mouthed Stubb, I think it has to do with Ishmael’s deification of Ahab, in retrospect. The other times that the narrative voice has fallen away are when we delve into the monomaniac captain’s inner thoughts and feelings, and this chapter is no different.

Ishmael wants to conjure the image of this wonderful and terrible man without any obvious artifice. To let the man himself stand alone, as is his wont, and continue to be a singular, maddening mystery at the heart of this tale.

Analyzing the Analysis

Okay, let’s go through these one by one.

This is the exact coin referred to, by the bye.

Ishmael’s interpretation of the coin fall in line with his usual interests: origins. He describes the place the gold came from, the materials that were involved in its creation, the artistry of its design. He gives us no particular interpretation of the images stamped upon it, but rather lingers in the wonder of how this object came to exist, and be nailed to this mast.

He also uses this opportunity to talk up Ahab more, noting that the doubloon has been sitting there, easy for any member of the crew to snatch during the night, for months and months at this point. It speaks to the power and influence of the old man that nobody has dared try it. Ishmael is ever concerned with the bare, physical facts of the matter, though he pay present them in a florid and philosophical manner. The facts of labor, of personal power, of circumstance. As the narrator of this doomed story, it is his role to sort through such facts.

Ahab, meanwhile, sees only a mirror of his own glory in the golden disc. Every symbol on it, from the mountains to the signs of the zodiac, represents some aspect of his person. Besides being simple self-aggrandizing, the most telling part of this is that he also assumes everyone else sees it the same way.

[…]; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.

As part of his rationalization of his mad quest for vengeance, he simply assumes everyone else is just as self-involved. Projection is a powerful rhetorical technique, utilized to devastating effect to this very day by many in the endless and disheartening rounds of political discourse that assail us Americans. If you assume everyone is a bad actor, then you had better be one as well! Otherwise, they’re just taking advantage of you! And if you accuse them of doing exactly what you’re doing, well, they’ll look foolish if they accuse you of doing so.

Starbuck sees only the face of God in the doubloon. Particularly in the sun, which towers above all other symbols, but abandons man every evening, as he has lately abandoned the Pequod and its crew, to Stabuck’s mind. But still, there is hope, in the symbol of the surrounding mountains; hope of the rising sun ever sustains through the long night.

Stubb basically gets in on the action of lookin’ at this coin because everyone else seems to be doing it. He looks at it and has no idea what to think, but knows he should have some sort of profound thought, so he goes and grabs his almanac so he can make sense of the zodiac. Then he spins some trite bullshit about the star signs representing stages of a human life, and you can really tell that even he doesn’t believe it. Still, he thinks this is a fun little game, so he hangs around to see what others think of it.

Flask, the third and least of the mates, comes along and is much more honest in his interpretation. Like Ishmael, he’s not interested in the doubloon as a metaphor, but he’s also not interested in it as a product of labor and industry. All he wants to think about is what it can get him, if he wins it. This simple, straightforward reasoning immediately inspires him to action, while everyone else is lost in their thoughts.

Much like Stubb, he’s just along for the ride, but he’s not even going to get distracted by the notion of there being more to any of this. He’s on this voyage to earn money, and this is an opportunity to get a little more. Flask is a real practictioner of realpolitik, if it’s not going to affect his day to day experience in the games of finance and power, he doesn’t particularly care.

The Old Manxman, who hasn’t been mentioned in quite a while, interprets the symbolism of the coin mystically. Using it as a tool to divine the future, he foretells doom and walks away disturbed. Queequeg attempts to find something familiar in the coin, referencing his own tattoos, but fails. As such, he gives up and walks away, chalking it up as another strange bit of fancy of these barbarians he must now live among.

From the Mouths of Babes

Finally, along comes poor little Pip. Driven to a sort of shakespearean King Lear-style madness, his repeated chant disturbs Stubb into leaving him alone. But, he is the only one to accurately foretell the doom of the ship. The gold will not glitter among the treasury of any member of the crew, it will only shine out from the depths of the ocean, where it will become entwined and subsumed back into nature.

This is a pine tree. My father, in old Tolland county, cut down a pine tree once, and found a silver ring grown over in it; some old darkey’s wedding ring. How did it get there? And so they’ll say in the resurrection, when they come to fish up this old mast, and find a doubloon lodged in it, with bedded oysters for the shaggy bark.

All shall return to dust in the end, as we know, but some things end up back there sooner. For all its marvellous symbolism and deep meaning, for all the cigars it represents, this doubloon is fated to lie at the bottom of the sea for all time!

In true shakespearean tradition, it takes someone who is seen as insane to simply say the truth that everyone already knows. This quest to intentionally hunt and kill a dangerous animal can only end one way. Everyone else is too caught up in the hopes and dreams of the future to see it. Pip, who has already died, out there on the ocean, can look at the doubloon and think clearly about what it means.

What it means is this: Ahab no longer cares about money. He’s willing to stake this golden treasure to drive his quest for vengeance, seeing it as a higher calling. That means, he’s willing to give up anything for it, which means he will drive them to death, in one way or another.

The Fateful Coin

Well, after all that, what do I think? Oh, I suppose I fall a bit into Ishmael’s camp, finding it fascinating that such an object has ended up here, playing the role that it is.

Being a piece of gold from an old Spanish colony, surely mined by tortured slaves, it serves as a perfect symbol for Ahab’s desired dictatorial control over the ship. He doesn’t want to collaborate with his crew to kill this whale, for their mutual benefit; he wants to use them as pawns, as his replacement limbs, to strike back against the fates that have so cursed him.

The blatant and horrifying cruelty of Spanish colonial practices floats around Ahab like a miasma. He is willing to achieve his goals by other means, but in the end, he is not above descending to those horrifying depths, and this coin is the symbol of that.

Well! That was a good one. This is another chapter with some really good prose, a great one to read aloud, Stubb is such a funny character sometimes. Most of the time, even.

As for the coin, well, take a look yourself, and let me know what you think! It’s all open to interpretation, and we’ve now seen an array of options. I suppose it serves as a microcosm for the events of the book itself, and this act of interpretation and reinterpretation is Ishmael’s labor as he pens in.

Until next time, shipmates!

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