After the Pequod has been at sea for several days, Ahab finally makes his first appearance. Ishmael tries to convince himself that Ahab has simply waited until the ship, sailing south, reached warmer climes. He describes the captain in emblematic ways. From that morning on, more is seen of Ahab.
Suspense is an effective literary device that Melville employs to develop an atmosphere of uncertainty or anticipation in the novel. The mystery surrounding Ahab and the voyage of the Pequod increases daily with Ahab's absence. Elijah's "diabolical" comments haunt Ishmael as he wonders about the captain and visually checks the rear of the ship, where the officer is quartered, whenever Ishmael is on duty. He tries to rationalize that Ahab is just waiting for warmer weather before he comes out of his cabin, but the captain's absence increases the narrator's sense of ominous concern.
When Ishmael finally does see Ahab standing on his quarter-deck one morning, "foreboding shivers" run over the crewman. He describes Ahab in emblematic terms that add to the mystery of the man. The language is especially effective here. The first we learn of the captain's appearance is that he does not seem to be ill but looks "like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them." Next we are told that Ahab looks like a sculpture of solid bronze; he is compared to an oak or some other sort of great tree. The captain has a prominent scar, "lividly whitish," running from the top of his head down his face and neck until it disappears beneath his clothing. It is compared to the mark of a lightning bolt, and an old Indian on board claims that it runs the length of Ahab's body, "crown to sole"; we get the feeling that a lightning bolt pierced this "grand, ungodly, god-like man" (Chapter 16) to his very soul. There is a grim look on the captain's face, "an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable" willfulness in his visage. This is all so overpowering that it takes Ishmael a few seconds to notice the leg — a barbaric, white, ivory prosthesis "fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale's jaw." The lower tip of the artificial leg is anchored in a hole in the quarter-deck, apparently bored for that purpose. (There is another such hole on the other side of the ship.) The description indicates a man larger than life; touched by heaven's bolt, for good or evil; and partly carved from a sperm whale's jaw.
peremptory final, absolute, decisive.
vicariously on behalf of another.
watch any of the periods of duty into which work is divided onboard ship.
Cellini Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), Italian sculptor also known for his autobiography.
mizzen shrouds the ropes connecting the third mast (from the front) to the ship's sides.
auger a narrow tool for boring holes in wood.