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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 28: AHAB

The Pequod has been sailing for days, but Ishmael still has not seen Captain Ahab. He's worried about Elijah's warnings,- despite the obvious sanity and skill of the mates who have taken over for the missing captain.

Then, on a gray gloomy morning, Ishmael sees the man he has heard so much about (standing on the quarterdeck). Whatever Ahab's illness, it was nothing common-he looks like a man who has survived being burned at the stake. The scar blazing on his cheek makes him appear like a great tree struck by lightning. Strangely, Ishmael says, that scar is seldom mentioned, though one of the Indians on board whispers that Ahab received it not in a fight with men but in a fight with nature during a storm at sea.

NOTE: FIRE AND LIGHTNING IMAGERY

Almost as soon as he steps on the quarterdeck, Ahab (who, we remember, was called "Old Thunder" by Elijah) is associated with lightning. We'll see Melville repeatedly linking thunder, lightning, and fire imagery with the Pequod's captain, as if to lift him above common men and rank him with great forces of nature.

Ahab soon returns to his cabin, but from then on he becomes regularly visible, standing with his ivory leg planted in a hole specially drilled in the deck for him or sitting on his special ivory stool. Within a few months the warm spring weather has helped improve his temper enough so that he occasionally shows what might be called a faint smile-a reminder that, as Peleg said, he does have his humanities.

CHAPTER 29: ENTER AHAB; TO HIM, STUBB
CHAPTER 30: THE PIPE

Although his temper has improved, something is bothering Ahab very deeply. Unable to sleep, he spends his nights on deck, trying not to pace out of consideration for the men sleeping below. One night, however, he can't help himself, he begins pacing, and the noise from his ivory leg wakes Stubb. When Stubb mildly suggests that Ahab muffle his steps, Ahab answers with scorn and hatred, and seems about to strike the second mate.

Stubb flees below deck, surprised at his own reaction. He doesn't know whether to turn around and fight Ahab, or to kneel and pray for him. It's an indication of how unusual Ahab is that even a matter-of-fact man like Stubb reacts with this kind of awe. The problem, Stubb thinks, is that Ahab has a conscience, an affliction as painful as tic douloureux (a nerve condition). Stubb hopes he's never bothered with a conscience.

One other strange thing about Ahab-every night he disappears into the ship's afterhold, as if he had an appointment there. (Melville hasn't forgotten the shadowy men whom Ishmael saw running toward the ship.)

As Stubb goes below deck, Ahab calls for his ivory stool and his pipe. Already we've seen that the pipe is a symbol of human kindness-Queequeg and Ishmael sealed their friendship by smoking the harpooner's tomahawk pipe, and Ishmael has suggested that Stubb's good temper comes from the pipe he constantly smokes. But when Ahab lights his pipe he gets no pleasure from it. "Oh my pipe," he says, "hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone." And so it is hurled into the ocean-and with it a little bit of Ahab's humanity.



NOTE: POINT OF VIEW

Up until now Moby-Dick has been a conventional first-person narrative-we've been dependent on Ishmael's eyes and ears, and have seen and heard only what he could logically see and hear. But now the point of view shifts. The narration moves closer to being omniscient, with a narrator able, for instance, to report Stubb's thoughts below deck and to describe Ahab at the same time throwing his pipe into the ocean. Some of you may object to altering the point of view well into the book, but there are advantages for the author. Naive, youthful Ishmael has entertainingly led us into the world of Moby-Dick, but Melville now needs greater freedom to develop his complex and wide-ranging story. You'll note that the point of view will switch back and forth in the coming chapters.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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