Chapter 48, “The First Lowering”
The dark figures are Fedallah’s crew. Fedallah is dark and has a turban and white protruding tooth. His companions are yellow complexioned, from the Manillas, thought by many to be spies from the devil himself. Fedallah is Ahab’s personal harpooner, although he also still wields a harpoon. He and the Manillans man Ahab’s boat, which is a fourth in the group that lower to chase the whales. The other three are commanded by the three mates and their harpooners. The captain of a ship does not usually go out in the chase, but Ahab always does.
We hear the different speeches of the mates as they exhort their men to row, but the narrator refuses to say what Ahab tells his crew. The sight of the small boats teetering on the edge of giant swells, followed by the Pequod “into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted Sperm Whale” (48. 221) is an initiation into the hunt for Ishmael.
Chapter 49, “The Hyena”
The boats are swamped in a squall, and the men huddle, trying to stay afloat. The Pequod bears down on Ishmael’s boat and the men jump overboard, as it rolls over the boat. All the men are saved, but Ishmael is shaken by his sudden brush with death and makes out a will. The mates assure him this is normal procedure. For Ishmael, it has been a small death and rebirth that he keeps to himself.
Analysis Chapters 48 and 49
Ahab has hidden his diabolic crew, who answer only to his own dark desires. His going beyond ordinary measures during the hunt prepares for the encounter with Moby Dick.
Ishmael is initiated into the whale hunt, finding out that each time is a risk of death, which the others treat lightly, as if “this whole universe [is] a vast practical joke” (49. 224). Ishmael’s view of life continues to change throughout the voyage, and here it takes another turn: “There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object” (49. 224). This, and the fact that the men are on a vast ocean in a small ship, with no recourse except a possible mutiny, helps to account for their passive acceptance of what is coming.