Chapter 118, “The Quadrant”
The Pequod heads for the Line or Equator where Moby Dick is likely to be found. Using the quadrant, Ahab takes the ship’s position with the sun, then smashes the quadrant, saying he will navigate by dead-reckoning alone. He curses science as a “vain toy” (118.493).
Chapter 119, “The Candles”
A sudden typhoon hits the Pequod, and the lightning produces St. Elmo’s fire on the masts, and they become like glowing candles. Ahab’s harpoon also glows at the tip. The crew takes this as an evil omen and begs Ahab to turn the boat towards home, but he will not be moved.
Analysis Chapters 118, and 119
Ahab loses faith in the quadrant because it cannot tell him truly where he is, only where the sun is. It cannot give him reassurance, the knowledge he wants concerning his place in the universe. He will guide the ship by his will alone.
We see ever deeper into Ahab’s spiritual sickness—his feeling of abandonment in the cosmos, even as Pip went mad, abandoned on the sea. When Ahab tramples the quadrant, the Parsee has a look of fatalistic despair, for he knows the end is coming. Ahab feels it is his fate to meet Moby Dick, and a quadrant is a toy in comparison to the cosmic forces bringing this about.
In the typhoon, Stubb sings to keep up his spirits, but Starbuck takes the storm as a warning, since it is coming from the direction they are going. Ahab’s small boat is destroyed, a further sign, and Starbuck begins to attribute the storm to Ahab, as Jonah was blamed and cast overboard. The sailors see the St. Elmo’s fire as “God’s burning finger” laid on the ship.
Ahab addresses the fire aloud as though confronting the power of the universe, the same that made him and Moby Dick. He says, “In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point . . . the personality feels her royal rights” (119. 499).
Ahab addresses this power (God) as an equal, even though he is smaller. If it breathes fire at him, he will breathe fire back. He would even merge with the fire: “defyingly, I worship thee!” (119.500) Ahab gains sympathy here, for he is a spiritual man, clearly longing for recognition from God, but he will not be a bootlicking worshipper.
He worships with defiance. The men are terrified when Starbuck points out that God has turned against Ahab, but Ahab takes up his harpoon with the fire on it and blows it out, showing he is still in charge.