Chapter 46, “Surmises”
Even in his mad pursuit of Moby Dick, Ahab knows he must keep the men busy hunting other whales for profit. This will also negate Starbuck’s charge against him that he is usurping the purpose of the voyage. Ahab looks down on the crew as materialistic men unable to have an abstract spiritual quest as he has, so he will control them through their lower nature.
Chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker”
On a sultry day, Queequeg and Ishmael weave a sword-mat for their boat. Ishmael sees it as the Loom of Time, and he is the shuttle, holding a ball of marline, weaving away at the Fates. There are the fixed threads of the warp—Necessity or Fate—and into these, Ishmael weaves his own strand (Free Will). Queequeg’s batting sword, which randomly packs the threads together, represents Chance. This is how Fate, Free Will, and Chance interplay to produce any event. It is Chance that has the last blow at events.
At that moment, Tashtego aloft, spies a whale: “There she blows!” Ishmael drops his “ball of free will,” in the excitement. The whale seems to represent the warp of fixed threads, the one constant goal of this journey. The boats are lowered in expectation of a chase. Suddenly appears with Ahab five “dusky phantoms.”
Analysis Chapters 46 and 47
Ahab’s sanity interweaves with his insanity. He knows he has to keep the men occupied, and hunting for other whales serves his ultimate purpose, so he will give the men their diversion, even while feeling superior to them.
The Loom of Time, as Ishmael calls the mat he and Queequeg weave for their boat, serves to help him understand how much freedom he has in this situation. It is useful for Melville to have chosen a schoolteacher for a narrator so that Ishmael can indulge his and Melville’s passion for philosophizing on every detail of the voyage. This is also fortunate for the reader because it places the story, which could be just an exotic adventure story, like the ones Melville first wrote, into a more universal context, designed to make us think about our own lives.
We have heard much about fate and predestination already, especially from Ahab, but Melville also believes in human free will. It is limited apparently by necessity, the warp threads already in place. No one confronts a blank canvas in life. There are pre-existing conditions we cannot control, such as time, place, heredity, and the results of previous actions coming towards us. On the fixed background, one may weave in one’s own plans and desires to alleviate these. Queequeg’s idle movement with his wooden sword, however, brings in the element of chance, or unplanned contingencies, the way in which everything finally falls together in the moment.
We are invited to contemplate the present scene in terms of this scheme. Ishmael starts the comparison by saying he has dropped his ball of free will when the whales are spotted; meaning, like the rest of the crew, he gives over to the time and place and does not exercise his will or thought against Ahab’s design. The sperm whale is compared to an undeviating clock, so it appears to be the warp in the story, the fixed line driving them all to their end. And what is chance in this scene?
We are not told, but suddenly, the hidden passengers appear with Ahab on the deck. We do not know how they will tip the scales.