Summary and Analysis Chapters 17-20



That evening, Ishmael waits until after dark to return to the room because Queequeg is fasting (a form of Ramadan) until sunset. The door is bolted from within. The landlady and Ishmael are concerned, and Ishmael breaks open the lock. Queequeg is fine but in a religious trance, which continues until dawn. That day, Queequeg signs on with the Pequod. Shortly after leaving the ship, the two friends are approached by a raggedy prophet of doom named Elijah who speaks of serious problems with Ahab. Ishmael judges the prophet a "humbug" (impostor). The ship is stocked and prepared for a long voyage.


While Ishmael tries to understand others' religions, he has difficulty accepting the extremes of what he sees as fanaticism, especially when health is threatened. He is equally opposed to Ramadan and the Christian Lent. Fasting, he argues, starves both the body and the soul, each of which thrives on sound digestion. Hell, he concludes, "is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling"! His speech is wasted on Queequeg, who may be putting Ishmael on as he claims that his only indigestion occurred when his father's warriors killed fifty of the enemy in an afternoon and the tribe had barbecued and devoured them by evening.

The religious theme continues as the owners of the Pequod insist that Queequeg, whom they call "Quohog" (a kind of clam), must be a Christian in order to sail on their boat. Ishmael argues that Queequeg is a member of "the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world," a reference to the genuine spirituality and humanity of his friend. The owners accept Ishmael's "sermon" good-naturedly but are more impressed when Queequeg demonstrates his marksmanship with the harpoon. They sign him to a ninetieth lay.

In this context, the warnings of the shabbily dressed prophet of doom, Elijah, might well be dismissed as just another distortion of hypocrisy or spiritual fervor. Ishmael tries to treat them that way. Yet there is something legitimately foreboding about the stranger, which goes beyond humbug. He seems to know a good deal about Captain Ahab, whom he calls "Old Thunder," and makes references to various mysteries in the captain's past, including a deadly fight with a Spaniard and the loss of the leg. Ishmael and Queequeg will soon hear more from Elijah.


Ramadan the ninth month of the Muslim year, a period of daily fasting from sunrise to sunset; here, a reference to Queequeg's abbreviated religious fast.

apoplexy a brain hemorrhage or stroke, causing convulsions, paralysis, etc.

sagacious wise.

dyspeptic suffering from indigestion.

abashed embarrassed, ill at ease.

Elijah a biblical prophet of doom (1 Kings 21:17-19).

ineffable that cannot or dare not be put into words because too overwhelming or sacred.