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Those of you who were inclined to doubt whether Ishmael’s depiction of Ahab and Pip is meant to evoke the relationship between King Lear and his fool will be pleased to find that “The Hat” opens with an actual allusion to Shakespeare’s great play:

And now that at the proper time and place, after so long and wide a preliminary cruise, Ahab, — all other whaling waters swept — seemed to have chased his foe into an ocean-fold, to slay him the more securely there; now, that he found himself hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted; now that a vessel had been spoken which on the very day preceding had actually encountered Moby Dick; — and now that all his successive meetings with various ships contrastingly concurred to show the demoniac indifference with which the white whale tore his hunters, whether sinning or sinned against; now it was that there lurked a something in the old man’s eyes, which it was hardly sufferable for feeble souls to see. As the unsetting polar star, which through the livelong, arctic, six months’ night sustains its piercing, steady, central gaze; so Ahab’s purpose now fixedly gleamed down upon the constant midnight of the gloomy crew. It domineered above them so, that all their bodings, doubts, misgivings, fears, were fain to hide beneath their souls, and not sprout forth a single spear or leaf. [Emphasis added.]

Here’s the relevant passage from the great storm scene in Lear (Act III, Scene ii); the speaker is Lear:

Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn’d against than sinning.

Shakespeare’s scene depicts Lear at the moment in which he becomes mad; “The Hat” depicts Ahab at the moment when Ahab’s point of view completely takes over the narrative. It’s often said that one of the things that is distinctive about the novel’s narration is its alternation between the comic digressions of Ishmael and the tragic-epic mode of the chapters devoted to depicting Ahab’s subjectivity. Now it is that latter mode that takes over. Ishmael reports that “all humor, forced or natural, vanished. Stubb no more strove to raise a smile; Starbuck no more strove to check one. Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul.”

Things are coming to a climax.

Fedallah too is transformed: “an added, gliding strangeness began to invest the thin Fedallah now; such ceaseless shudderings shook him; that the men looked dubious at him; half uncertain, as it seemed, whether indeed he were a mortal substance, or else a tremulous shadow cast upon the deck by some unseen being’s body.” Fedallah, you’ll remember, has made some prophecies. Is his “shuddering” due to their imminent fulfillment? Ahab and “the Parsee” are always on deck, always watching:

Though such a potent spell seemed secretly to join the twain; openly, and to the awe-struck crew, they seemed pole-like asunder. If by day they chanced to speak one word; by night, dumb men were both, so far as concerned the slightest verbal interchange. At times, for longest hours, without a single hail, they stood far parted in the starlight; Ahab in his scuttle, the Parsee by the mainmast; but still fixedly gazing upon each other; as if in the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow, in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned substance.

it is clear to the crew that the Parsee is in Ahab’s thrall, but it also becomes evident that Ahab ceases to trust the crew to be sufficient watchful, after a few days elapse without a sighting of Moby Dick. So Ahab decides that he will be the one to see the white whale first — “Aye! Ahab must have the doubloon!” — and a contraption is rigged that raises him to the top of the royal mast. Pointedly, Ahab assigns to Starbuck the task of raising him and securing the rope, as Ishmael puts it, “freely giving his whole life into such an otherwise distrusted person’s hands.” But perhaps it is a sign of Ahab’s final domination of Starbuck: both men know that Starbuck will execute the task he has been assigned, and there will be no mishap.

And then another portent: the “first time Ahab was perched aloft,” he is pestered by” one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks which so often fly incommodiously close around the manned mast-heads of whalemen in these latitudes.” It’s a common enough occurrence, but now nothing that occurs can be seen as simply “common”: “But with his gaze fixed upon the dim and distant horizon, Ahab seemed not to mark this wild bird; nor, indeed, would any one else have marked it much, it being no uncommon circumstance; only now almost the least heedful eye seemed to see some sort of cunning meaning in almost every sight.”

But then the bird steals Ahab’s hat and far in the distance, in what can only be taken to be an ill omen, drops it into the sea …

“The Hat” is read by BBC4 announcer Diana Speed. The accompanying image, Come you lost atoms to your centre draw is by Graham Day. It is a work-in-progress collage of xeroxed paper of 18th century engravings, metallic paint, watercolour on fibreboard (size: 105 x 60 cm), which is used courtesy of Rose Issa Projects.



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“The Cabin” is another dramatic chapter, and it develops further the relationship between mad Ahab and the mad cabin-boy Pip. Ahab now spends all of his time on deck watching for Moby Dick, but tells Pip to stay in the cabin, “where they shall serve thee, as if thou wert the captain.” Pip refuses: he wants to stay by Ahab’s side, refusing to desert Ahab, having experienced being abandoned once by Stubb.

Captain Gardiner’s appeal did not move Ahab, but something in Pip’s fidelity seems to strike a chord that Ahab cannot afford to hear: “If thou speakest thus to me much more, Ahab’s purpose keels up in him. I tell thee no; it cannot be.”

In “The Doubloon,” Pip seemed to reduce language to the bare bones of conjugation, deflating the chapter’s examination of the ways in which perception and interpretation are marked by individual personality and ideology. Here, communication becomes wordless, as Ahab tells Pip, “Listen, and thou wilt often hear my ivory foot upon the deck, and still know that I am there.” Like “The Doubloon,” this chapter ends with a monologue by Pip, who meditates in his mad but sane way about the reversal that has taken place — implicit in Ahab’s ritual on “The Quarter-Deck” — in which Pip can now play the captain:

Here, our old sailors say, in their black seventy-fours great admirals sometimes sit at table, and lord it over rows of captains and lieutenants. Ha! what’s this? epaulets! epaulets! the epaulets all come crowding! Pass round the decanters; glad to see ye; fill up, monsieurs! What an odd feeling, now, when a black boy’s host to white men with gold lace upon their coats!

“Pip” is lost at sea and now engages in mad role-playing, pretending to be the captain in the captain’s cabin. Meanwhile, the Pequod‘s “captain” is also lost, and there is only Ahab on the deck, pursuing a purpose that seems to have nothing to do with being a captain of men.

“The Cabin” is read by the RIght Reverend Nick McKinnel, the former rector of the Minster Church of St Andrew in Plymouth, who was ordained last December as the Anglican Bishop of Crediton at Southwark Cathedral. The accompanying image depicts by Darren Lago‘s Large Glass (2006; mirror, steel and electrical motors, 5 parts, each: 175 x 183 x 155 cm). The image is copyright Darren Lago and used courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London.



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Of all the gams that Ishmael describes in the novel, this meeting with the Rachel is the most fraught — with emotion for the characters and with significance for the narrative. Here the Pequod encounters a ship that, the day before, encountered Moby Dick and suffered terrible losses as a result. Missing is a whaleboat containing the twelve-year-old son of Gardiner, the Rachel‘s captain, who begs Ahab to join him in the search. It is an unusual request — “Who ever heard of two pious whale-ships cruising after one missing whale-boat in the height of the whaling season?” Stubb asks Flask as they overhear the captains’ conversation. When the reason is revealed, Stubb exclaims, “We must save that boy,” though the old Manxman has already proclaimed the boy and all the rest of the missing sailors drowned — that’s his explanation for the eerie sounds that the Pequod heard in “The Life-Buoy.”

Knowing that his quarry is so close, Ahab —  heartlessly and predictably, though, as Ishmael describes it, perhaps not without remorse — refuses, and the Pequod continues on its course.

In the final line of the chapter, Ishmael gives the name of Gardiner’s ship an allegorical meaning, drawn from the Bible: “But by her still halting course and winding, woful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not.” For Ishmael, the ship’s name brings to mind these verses from chapter 31 of the Book of Jeremiah:

15: Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.
16: Thus saith the LORD; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.

Rachel (“Rahel” in the King James Version) is traditional interpreted within the Judaic tradition to stand in for the mother of the Hebrew people. This moment is invoked in the New Testament in Matthew 2:16-18:

16: Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
17: Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
18: In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Ishmael had invoked Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in “The Life-Buoy” to describe the sounds that the Pequod hears across the water. Captain Gardiner himself evokes the New Testament, the “Golden Rule” that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:12 — “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” — and Luke 6:31 — “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

Gardiner appeals to Ahab: “Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case. For you too have a boy, Captain Ahab — though but a child, and nestling safely at home now — a child of your old age too — Yes, yes, you relent; I see it — run, run, men, now, and stand by to square in the yards.” But he’s wrong: Ahab does not relent. Biblical reasoning has no effect on him — no surprise to us by now — nor, apparently, does the invocation of his wife and child, though we will see Starbuck try one more time to appeal to Ahab’s family feeling in the wonderful chapter called “The Symphony.”

“The Pequod Meets the Rachel” is read by the artist Alice Herrick. The accompanying image, Melancholia (2008) is by Gavin Turk.



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“The Deck” continues the narrative train of thought established at the end of “The Log and Line,” which I suggested we read with Shakespeare’s King Lear in mind. “The Life-Buoy” ended with the carpenter front and center, given another prose soliloquy that might remind us of the end of the dramatic chapter “Ahab and the Carpenter.” With “The Deck,” we enter the dramatic mode once again, featuring Ahab and the Carpenter once again. Ahab’s address to the carpenter uses a word that strikes as very Shakespearean — “arrant” — and reminds me a little of the conversation between Hamlet and the grave-digger in the final act of Hamlet. Seemingly offended that the same man can make both artificial legs and coffins, Ahab says:

“Then tell me; art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, inter-meddling, monopolizing, heathenish old scamp, to be one day making legs, and the next day coffins to clap them in, and yet again life-buoys out of those same coffins? Thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all- trades.”

“But I do not mean anything, Sir. I do as I do.”

“The gods again. hark ye, dost thou not ever sing working about a coffin? The Titans, they say, hummed snatches when chipping out the craters for volcanoes; and the grave-digger in the play sings, spade in hand. Dost thou never?”

“Sing, Sir? Do I sing? Oh, I’m indifferent enough, Sir, for that; but the reason why the grave- digger made music must have been because there was none in his spade, Sir. But the calking mallet is full of it. Hark to it.”

“Aye, and that’s because the lid there’s a sounding- board; and what in all things makes the sounding-board is this — there’s naught beneath. And yet, a coffin with a body in it rings pretty much the same, Carpenter. Hast thou ever helped carry a bier, and heard the coffin knock against the churchyard gate, going in?”

“Faith, Sir, I’ve — ”

“Faith? What’s that?”

“Why, faith, Sir, it’s only a sort of exclamation-like — that’s all, Sir.”

“Um, um; go on.”

“I was about to say, Sir, that — ”

“Art thou a silk-worm? Dost thou spin thy own shroud out of thyself? Look at thy bosom! Despatch! and get these traps out of sight.”

The word “faith,” which the carpenters uses as an “exclamation” brings the conversation to a halt, because it rubs Ahab the wrong way. “Faith? What’s that?” he asks, and we should understand that literally: Ahab really doesn’t understand the concept as most men use it.

Now it’s Ahab’s turn for a prose soliloquy, and as he thinks about the conundrum of turning “the very dreaded symbol of grim death” into “the expressive sign of the help and hope of most endangered life,” he delivers a sentence that sounds utterly Shakespearean: “So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.”

Compare that line to one of Macbeth’s: “I am in blood /Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.iv). Or this one by Richard III:  “But I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin: /
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.”

Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III: the intertextualities do not bode well.

“The Deck” is read by 12-year-old Cyrus Larcombe-Moore and his teacher Tom Thoroughgood. The pair are mentioned in this New York Times article about the “Big Read.” The accompanying image, Three Made Places (2005), is by Antony Gormley and Peter Clegg. It was part of the Cape Farewell project, which (according to its website) was created in 2001 by the artist David Buckland “to instigate a cultural response to climate change. Cape Farewell is now an international not-for-profit programme based in the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London and with a North American foundation based at the MaRS centre in Toronto. (2005).”



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The Pequod, “steering now south-eastward by Ahab’s levelled steel, and her progress solely determined by Ahab’s level log and line” is now seemingly all alone in “unfrequented waters” as she heads toward the Equator, and the mild seas strike the jittery crew as “the strange calm things preluding some riotous and desperate scene.” When strange sounds are heard across the water, the crew is all too ready to believe the old Manxman’s declaration that they are “the voices of newly drowned men in the sea.” For a change, it is Ahab — rather than, say, Stubb — who offers a rational explanation based on long experience.

But then calamity strikes: at sun-rise one of the sailors goes “from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore; and whether it was that he was not yet half waked from his sleep (for sailors sometimes go aloft in a transition state), whether it was thus with the man, there is now no telling; but, be that as it may, he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard — a cry and a rushing — and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.” The life-buoy is tossed overboard, but “no hand rose to seize it.” Moreover, like the log before it, the cask has been spoiled by the sun and sinks.

Ishmael’s narrative voice intones: “And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep.” (I love that sentence.)

Signs and portents. But is the crewman’s death the fulfillment of signs and portents — predicted by the strange sounds heard earlier — or is the event itself a sign of worse things to come?

In any case, a new life-buoy is needed, but no suitable “cask of sufficient lightness” can be found. And then “by certain strange signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin.” And so a coffin is transformed by the carpenter into a life-buoy.

Life from death? Is that a sign and a portent? We’ll see.

“The Life-Buoy” is read by Paul Minot of Bath Spa University. The accompanying image, Lifejacket,  is by John Wood & Paul Harrison.


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After Ahab destroys his quadrant, he declares that “‘the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye,’ lighting from the boat to the deck, ‘thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!'”

“Level dead-reckoning, by log and by line” was an old method of determining a ship’s speed at sea. The term “log” is a misnomer, which Ishmael suggests by referring to the apparatus as “the wooden reel and angular log” attached hung.” The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the UK has a model of a log and line:


Here’s how the museum describes its use:

The log-reel, line, log-ship and sand-glass were used for determining a ship’s speed. To do this, the log-ship was dropped overboard and the line was allowed to pay out from the log-reel for a set time from the sand-glass (28 seconds). As the line paid out the number of knots in the line that passed through the hand was counted, thus giving a measure of the ship’s speed. Both the reel and log-ship are made of wood. The reel is constructed so that it is free to spin when held by the handles. The log-ship is in the shape of a section of a circle and is weighted on its curved edge. It is attached to the line with a pin and socket. When the line was to be pulled in, a sharp tug would pull out the pin, allowing the log-ship to lie flat in the water so that it could be pulled in more easily. The sand-glass has a brass case with ‘28 SEC’ stamped into each end. The log and line was first described by William Bourne in 1574 and was used for measuring ship’s speed into the 20th century, although mechanical speed logs were introduced from the 19th century.

The following pictures of the log and line come from Duane Cline’s The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony: 1620 website:



Log and line dead reckoning was often used in conjunction with a quadrant to chart the ship’s position in between quadrant sightings. You could just use the log and line with a compass instead, the compass giving you your direction and dead reckoning giving you your speed. But that method was comparatively inaccurate and couldn’t correct for such conditions as the strength of the following sea, sideways currents, stretching of the line, or inaccuracies in reading the sandglass. In
“The Musket,” Starbuck thinks about Ahab’s decision-making, asking himself, “Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant? and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?” Ahab’s destruction of the quadrant is one of the acts that suggests to Starbuck that Ahab is unfit for command and leading the Pequod to its doom.

In “The Needle,” another of Ahab’s tools is compromised: the compass. And here the next tool proves compromised as well. Ahab refuses to believe the old Manxman’s declaration that “long heat and wet have spoiled” the line, but the Manxman is right: the line snaps and the log is lost. Ahab simply orders another one to be made, blaming the loss of the log on the “mad sea.”

But the conclusion of the chapter suggests that it’s the madness of the captain that we should be worried about. Here Ishmael gives us a moment that recalls Shakespeare’s King Lear during the storm, as Ahab regards the mad cabin-boy Pip with the same compassion that Lear offers to his fool. Pip identifies with the log: both went overboard and both are lost at sea, for, as far as Pip is concerned, “Pip” never returned after being cast away. Pip’s condition becomes yet another grievance that Ahab charges to the powers that be:

“Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart- strings. Come, let’s down.”

“What’s this? here’s velvet shark-skin, intently gazing at Ahab’s hand, and feeling it. Ah, now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne’er been lost! This seems to me, Sir, as a man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by. Oh, Sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go.”

“Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. come, then, to my cabin. Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!”

The previous chapter ends with Ahab’s “fiery eyes” and “fatal pride.” This chapter begins with the Pequod called a “fated,” its fate seemingly determined by the madman who is its captain. But the chapter ends with a glimpse of Ahab’s humanity and the sense that Ahab, for all his flaws, is the champion of humankind against the powers that afflict it.

“The Log and Line” is read by Sheila Snelgrove, director of the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth. The accompanying image is a photograph by Uros Kirn of one of Theo Jansen‘s Strandbeests.


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Unbeknownst to Ahab and his crew, the electrical storm through which the Pequod has just passed has reversed the polarity of the ship’s compass so that the Pequod is now sailing West — homeward — instead of East — toward Moby Dick. It’s as if nature itself is urging the ship to avoid encountering the white whale. Looking at the sun, Ahab realizes what has happened and remains undaunted. He fashions his own compass out of the tip of a lance and a needle, and it points in the right direction. The crew can’t believe it: “‘Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not the lord of the level loadstone! The sun is East, and that compass swears it!” The doubting Thomases look and find that Ahab speaks truly.

The chapter continues the association of Ahab with fire. At the outset, as the Pequod sails on a sea made golden by the sun’s light, Ahab likens the Pequod to the “sea-chariot of the sun” (which would make him Apollo). At the chapter’s end, Ishmael writes, “In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.” Fatal pride is the mark of a tragic hero. Is that what Ahab will turn out to be? Or is “hero” not quite the right word?

“The Needle” is read by Stephanie Boxall. The accompanying image, clay model, glass eye, plant roots, insect wings, hedgehog spine (2012) is by Tessa Farmer.



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Chapter-123-philp-hoareThis chapter poses a familiar ethical dilemma: is it morally acceptable to kill one man in order to save many?

The typhoon abates, new sails are reefed, and Starbuck goes down to Ahab’s cabin to inform the captain that they are back on course. On his way, he sees Ahab’s muskets and picks up the very one which Ahab threatened him some chapters back. And then he conceives what Ishmael describes as “an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself.”

Starbuck is absolutely certain that Ahab is leading the men to their deaths, that Ahab is destined to become “he wilful murderer of thirty men and more.” Starbuck can prevent that crime but only by becoming himself a criminal, committing mutiny or even murder. “A touch,” he thinks, and he “may survive to hug his wife and child again.”

Starbuck points the musket at Ahab’s door, and Ishmael writes that the mate “seemed wrestling with an angel.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to let you know that Starbuck doesn’t pull the trigger. But the question remains: was that the right thing to do?

“The Musket” is read by Nick Ryan. The accompanying image, Cape Apocalypse, Provincetown (2012) is by “Big Read” co-curator Philip Hoare.



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The shortest chapter in the book.

A two-sentence stage direction, followed by seven sentences. And three of those sentences are “Um, um, um” — barely sentences at all.

Tashtego, following Ahab’s orders, is “passing new lashings” around “the main-top-sail yard.” And wishing he had a glass of rum instead of thunder all around him. If we’re thinking about the pattern of chapters that followed “The Quarter-Deck,” we see that the three that follow “The Candles” are much shorter, as if the ship and the novel were running out of time. So perhaps it’s Ishmael’s little joke: instead of the long “Midnight, Forecastle” chapter that brought the harpooneers and sailors to center stage with final emphasis on the harpooneer Daggoo, we now get the very brief “”Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning” chapter, in which only the harpooneer Tashtego appears.

But, as it turns out, there’s a reason that Ishmael wants us to picture Tashtego at the very top of the mainmast. You’ll find out soon enough.

“Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning” is read by Max Goonetillake.  The accompanying image, The Spouter Inn, is Colter Jacobsen and is used courtesy of James Brett.



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In a version of the pattern that follows “The Quarter-Deck,” Ishmael focuses our attention on Ahab and Starbuck in the previous chapter and shifts here to Stubb and Flask. Mostly Stubb, though, as it turns out.

The two of them seem to have been discussing Ahab’s refusal to lower the lightning rod. Flask seems to have thought that Ahab was taking a massive risk, standing by the mast without the safety of the rods being lowered. But Stubb points out that “not one ship in a hundred carries rods,” so Ahab was no less safe than the crews of all those other ships.”

It’s a bit of comic relief that reiterates Stubb’s jolly fatalism. In fact, it turns out to be the last bit of comic relief in the novel. The end is nigh.

“Midnight.—The Forecastle Bulwarks” is read by artist Robert Fearns, who teaches at Bath Spa University. The accompanying image, The Brick Agrochola circellaris (Hufnagel, 1766) (2010; Silver Gelatin Print; 31 x 25 cm) is by Marcus Coates and is used courtesy of the artist and Workplace Gallery, UK.



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