Summary and Analysis
A few weeks after the welding of Ahab's harpoon, the Pequod meets a Nantucket ship called the Bachelor, a whaler filled with oil and headed home. The crew of the Bachelor "vaingloriously" celebrates its success, and the two captains briefly share their very different opinions.
The episode with the Bachelor is one of the novel's most effective examples of the use of contrast and detail. The Bachelor contrasts with the Virgin (Chapter 81) in that its crew and captain are experienced, skilled whalers who are at the end of a successful voyage. In addition to their abilities, they have been blessed with good luck and have filled the ship with oil while other vessels in the same seas, reminiscent of the Virgin when it was met, have sometimes gone for months without capturing a single whale. The Bachelor's hold is bursting with casks of sperm oil. Barrels of food, no longer needed on the shortened journey, have been given away to make more room — or traded for supplemental casks. Barrels of oil are stowed on deck and in the officers' and even the captain's quarters, the officers' mess table removed and burned to make more room. Crewmen have caulked and pitched their sea chests, turning them into makeshift casks for more and more oil. Someone jokes that the cook has filled his largest boiler with oil and the steward his spare coffeepot. Everything is filled with oil, Ishmael says, except the captain's trouser pockets.
Even more significant is the contrast with the Pequod. The Bachelor is a happy ship devoted only to its professional mission of accumulating oil and returning safely home to Nantucket. The mood aboard ship is light and bursting with revelry as opposed to the Pequod's ominous anticipation of its dark goal, pursuing Moby Dick. The Bachelor sails with the wind to its back; the Pequod fights the wind. Even from a distance, it is easy to mark the celebration aboard the Bachelor as it proudly and joyfully displays ensigns and jacks of all colors. The men at the mastheads wear streamers of red bunting. Containers of oil are lashed to the masts and to the lookout posts as trophies, no more sightings of whales necessary. The lower jaw of the last whale taken hangs from a spar at the front of the ship; at the rear, an open boat hangs upside down. Drums sound from the forecastle. There is music and dancing with "olive-hued girls who had eloped" from the Polynesian Isles. The try-works have been torn down, no further rendering of blubber needed.
Most striking are the contrasting demeanors of the two captains. The Bachelor's commander is jovial and hospitable, inviting Ahab to come aboard for a drink. Ahab grits his teeth, ignores the invitation, and asks, of course, "Hast seen the White Whale?" The other captain says he has only heard of the leviathan but doesn't believe in him. Ahab is obsessed with killing that which the practical, successful captain deems a myth. Ahab decides that the other man is "too damned jolly . . . How wondrous familiar [chummy] is a fool!" he mutters. The Bachelor's pilot announces that it is "a full ship and homeward-bound." Ahab's revealing reply sums up the contrast: "Thou art a full ship and homeward bound, thou sayst; well, then, call me an empty ship, and outward-bound."
vainglorious boastfully vain and proud of oneself.
bowsprit a large, tapered spar extending forward from the bow of a sailing vessel.
jacks here, small flags.
taffrail the rail around the stern of a ship.