During the ambergris matter, Stubb's after-oarsman seriously sprained his hand, causing the second mate to assign little Pip to his boat. On his second outing, Pip leaps from the boat after it is struck by a whale and becomes tangled in the line so that Tashtego has to cut the rope, freeing Pip and saving his life but also liberating the whale. Stubb warns Pip never to do that again, or he will be abandoned at sea. Soon thereafter, Pip jumps again and is left alone on the ocean for a considerable time. When the Pequod finally picks him up, Pip has drastically changed.
Ishmael uses the story of Pip to demonstrate that there are depths of understanding that go beyond the limits of most mortals and that our knowledge of them may make us seem mad. Pip is a free African American, a native, we're told, of Tolland County in Connecticut. (When Ishmael calls Pip an "Alabama boy" near the end of Chapter 27, perhaps he refers to Pip's race or former family home.) Pip is a bright, sensitive, kind young fellow, not yet a man but placed among men for a difficult journey. He is, by nature, happy and peaceful. Ishmael wonders how Pip ever became "entrapped" in such a harsh business as whaling. The job does seem to have blurred his brightness, we are told.
These insights into Pip's character help to explain his problems in the boat. Pip is too young and inexperienced to be an oarsman. The first time that a whale hits the bottom of his boat, Pip, startled and afraid, leaps away — and into the line as well as the ocean. The boat loses its whale. Stubb, who is never especially sensitive, tells the child that a whale would sell for thirty times what Pip would in a slave state such as Alabama. Pip is never to be such a cowardly fool again, or he will be left at sea.
Soon, however, Pip jumps again, under similar circumstances. Stubb may not have meant what he said about abandoning Pip. Perhaps he was exaggerating. Maybe he thinks that the trailing boats will pick up the child, but other whales distract them. Whatever the reasons, Pip is left alone on the vast ocean until the mother ship fortunately finds him. He is inexorably changed. Most critics simply state that Pip becomes an "idiot," but that is not what Ishmael says. In the vast, terrible isolation of the sea, Pip has seen "God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad." Pip has witnessed a cruel indifference in the universe that makes man's rational thoughts seem absurd. It is little wonder that he will become Ahab's closest — and only — friend.
timorous full of or subject to fear, timid.
poltroon a thorough coward.
inexorable that cannot be altered.