During one of his regular walks on the quarter-deck, Ahab fastens his attention on the gold coin that he has nailed to the mainmast, a reward for the crewman who first spots Moby Dick. Several others contemplate the coin as well. As the journey continues, Ahab hails an English ship, the Samuel Enderby, with his usual greeting: "Hast seen the White Whale?" This ship has. In fact, its captain lost an arm in an encounter with Moby Dick.
The focus returns to Ahab's egocentrism and his obsession with hunting the White Whale. As he and several other characters observe the "doubloon," the coin nailed to the mainmast and promised to the man who first sights Moby Dick, each reflects on the meaning of the coin's decorations in a way that reveals his own character. Only Ahab sees himself in the coin.
The shining gold doubloon has the words "REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO" inscribed around its border. On the face are three Andes Mountain peaks. From one comes a flame; another features a tower; on the third is a crowing cock. A portion of the zodiac arches over the coin, complete with appropriate occult signs. The sun appears at Libra. Melville suspends Ishmael's third-person narration as we move within the thoughts of each of the coin's observers.
The coin is like a mirror of the soul. Ahab sees himself in the "three peaks as proud as Lucifer" on the coin's face. For him, the tower is Ahab: firm and resolute. The volcano is Ahab: seething, powerful. The rooster is Ahab: courageous, undaunted, victorious. He thinks that the coin is "like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn [it] but mirrors back his own mysterious self."
Others see things they value as they peruse the coin, but they don't see themselves. The devout first mate, Starbuck, sees the Trinity. Stubb sees temporary wealth and mystery. Flask reveals his inability with simple math as he miscalculates how many of his beloved cigars he could buy with the doubloon. The coin reminds Queequeg of his tattoos and homeland. The "ghost-devil" Fedallah bows to the sun that he worships. Little Pip speaks in metaphors but seems to notice a universal human longing in the coin's images. For this moment, the doubloon is the center of the ship, its "navel."
The significance of the gam with the Samuel Enderby is that it contrasts the two ships' captains' attitudes regarding Moby Dick. The English captain lost an arm in an encounter with the White Whale near the "Line" (equator). Unlike Ahab, however, he wants no more of the leviathan. It is best to leave the White Whale alone. Ahab does not necessarily disagree but does add, "What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He's all a magnet!" The Pequod soon is off to continue its captain's monomaniacal quest.
verdigris a green or greenish-blue coating that forms like rust on brass, bronze, or copper.
pilfer to steal small sums or petty objects.
Quito the capital city of the republic of Ecuador.
hoe-cake a thin bread made of cornmeal, originally baked on a hoe at the fire.
festoon a wreath or garland of flowers, leaves or paper, shaped in a loop or curve.