“The Candles” is a momentous chapter in the novel, a restaging of the ritual conducted in “The Quarter-Deck,” designed to get the crew to reaffirm the oath it has sworn to hunt down and destroy Moby Dick. Ahab takes advantage of an incident of St. Elmo’s Fire (referred to in the chapter by the term “corpusants,” short for corpus sancti) to make himself seem invested with almost supernatural powers.
As the chapter begins, the calm of the Japanese seas is broken by a typhoon, and Ahab’s whaleboat is destroyed. An omen?
Plus, as Starbuck points out to Stubb, “the gale comes from the eastward, the very course Ahab is to run for Moby Dick … the very course he swung to this day.” Yet another omen?
It’s as if nature itself is telling the Pequod to turn around, and Starbuck realizes that the very wind that threatens to destroy them if they press forward can be the wind that saves them if they turn around and head for home:
“Yes, yes, round the Cape of Good Hope is the shortest way to Nantucket,’ soliloquized Starbuck suddenly … ‘The gale that now hammers at us to stave us, we can turn it into a fair wind that will drive us towards home. Yonder, to windward, all is blackness of doom; but to leeward, homeward — I see it lightens up there; but not with the lightning.”
Just then, as if sensing this mutinous thought, Ahab appears on deck — and so does the lightning. Starbucks wants to order that the lightning rods be lowered, but Ahab refuses, as if he senses the opportunity with which he is about to be presented:
All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.
“Blast the boat! let it go!” cried Stubb at this instant, as a swashing sea heaved up under his own little craft, so that its gunwale violently jammed his hand, as he was passing a lashing. ‘Blast it!’ — but slipping backward on the deck, his uplifted eyes caught the flames; and immediately shifting his tone, he cried — “The corpusants have mercy on us all!”
The crew is “enchanted,” mesmerized by the sight of the masts lit up like “three spermaceti candles” (as Stubb puts it). Meanwhile, Fedallah is once again kneeling before Ahab, who now reveals the source of the scar that so transfixed Ishmael in the “Ahab” chapter:
“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”
Ahab’s scar, it turns out to be the result of a religious ritual, though — contrary to the expectations that Ishmael