Chapter 16, “The Ship”
Queegeg’s black idol, Yojo, has told him Ishmael must choose the ship they will take, though Yojo has already chosen it and relies on Ishmael to know which one it is. Ishmael remarks that Yojo means well but does not always succeed in his benevolence.
Three ships are ready to sail, and Ishmael chooses the melancholy and ancient-looking Pequod, named for the extinct tribe of Massachusetts Indians. The ship is decorated with whale teeth and looks like “a cannibal of a craft” (16.68).
Ishmael hails one of the owners, Captain Peleg, a Quaker who quizzes Ishmael on his qualifications. Ishmael thinks he is the captain of the ship, but Peleg says no, that is Captain Ahab, who has only one leg, the other being ripped from him by a whale. Peleg is testy and rejects Ishmael’s sea experience in the merchant service, implying whaling is a much fiercer business: “art thou the man to pitch a harpoon down a live whale’s throat, and then jump after it?” When Ishmael says yes, he leads him to the other owner, the stingy Bildad, a Quaker more interested in profit than religion. Bildad assigns a very small “lay” or portion of the ship’s profit to Ishmael; Peleg makes him raise it, but it is still small.
Peleg tells Ishmael about Captain Ahab, who wants to remain below until the voyage. He is a “grand, ungodly godlike man” (16.79). Ishmael remembers Ahab was a wicked king in the Bible, but Peleg says that his name is not his fault; he is basically good, except that an old Indian squaw once said his name would be prophetic.
Analysis Chapter 16
There is humor in the exchange between Ishmael and the Quaker captains, but underneath plays a tragic and warning note. Ishmael implies that Queequeg’s god may not be very powerful in its providence, and thus the choice of a ship could be wrong.
Ishmael picks a melancholy and old ship with a history. It is named after a tribe that was massacred, not a good omen. The ship appears devouring, like a whale jaw. While the Quaker owners are humorous characters, Ishmael thinks the brave Nantucket Quaker whalemen are fit to be tragic heroes, which Ahab will prove to be, for “all mortal greatness is but a disease” (16.73), a sentiment that echoes the sermon on Jonah. Human will pushes one way, and divine will another.
Ishmael is a happy go lucky character who does not mind getting nothing from the voyage but experience. Money is not his motivation. This gives him a certain freedom and detachment.
Peleg begins to build up details about Ahab’s personality: he seems to be a godly man, but ungodly at the same time, a contradiction that would fit a tragic hero. It was after losing his leg that he lost his mind and became “moody.” He has a young wife and child at home (“Ahab has his humanities” 16.80). Ishmael is left with vague doubts but sympathy and awe for Ahab as well.