He had been originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers, where he had been a great prophet; in their cracked, secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by the way of a trap-door, announcing the speedy opening of the seventh vial, which he carried in his vest-pocket; but, which, instead of containing gunpowder, was supposed to be charged with laudanum. A strange, apostolic whim having seized him, he had left Neskyeuna for Nantucket, where, with that cunning peculiar to craziness, he assumed a steady, common-sense exterior, and offered himself as a green-hand candidate for the Jeroboam’s whaling voyage. They engaged him; but straightway upon the ship’s getting out of sight of land, his insanity broke out in a freshet. He announced himself as the archangel Gabriel, and commanded the captain to jump overboard. He published his manifesto, whereby he set himself forth as the deliverer of the isles of the sea and vicar-general of all Oceanica. The unflinching earnestness with which he declared these things;—the dark, daring play of his sleepless, excited imagination, and all the preternatural terrors of real delirium, united to invest this Gabriel in the minds of the majority of the ignorant crew, with an atmosphere of sacredness.
—The Jeroboam’s Story
Cursed. Twice on the docks of Nantucket, Ishmael and Queequeg time are accosted by a gnarled old salt calling himself Elijah. The first encounter makes up the entirety of Chapter 19: The Prophet—this old man had obviously long retired into soliciting, prophesizing, etc., and Ishmael indignantly shrugs off the supposed portents Elijah describes. His second interaction with Elijah comes a few days later in Chapter 21: Going Aboard. Elijah’s obsession is Ahab, and the doom he foresees is the doom of Ahab’s purpose—the men who ship with this Captain are merely casualties in a grander struggle. This rankles Ishmael’s sense of self-worth and he dismisses Elijah as a humbug. Later, when Elijah hints at stowaways aboard the Pequod (shadowy figures that Ishmael himself perhaps sees), Ishmael is forced into confronting the heightened reality the old prophet describes. It is both Ahab’s absence from the start of the voyage as well as Elijah’s divine pity and condescension that catch in Ishmael’s mind—though he scoffs at this man and his cryptic questions and predictions, the seed of Ahab’s madness is firmly planted in his imagination.
Chapter 71: The Jeroboam’s Story is an absolute pleasure to read. Its internal structure and pace are dictated not by Ahab or even Ishmael, but by the sea herself. A boat approaches from another ship, and tells the harrowing tale of an encounter with Moby Dick. As the story is unfolding however, the waves and wind separate boat and ship at regular intervals, giving Melville a rhythmic, anticipatory structure that allows for some of his best internal storytelling. The most wonderful part of the story is of course Gabriel, the headsman of the Jeroboam’s boat, a crazy religious zealot who speaks wild prophecies about Moby Dick as the ‘Shaker God incarnated.’ When Gabriel catches wind of Ahab’s only question, ‘Hast seen the White Whale?’ the prophet is struck with visions, much to Ahab’s frustration. The chapter ends in the eerie exchange of a letter, carried aboard the Pequod in her mail bag, for the mate of the Jeroboam, Macey, who was struck dead by Moby Dick some few days or weeks earlier. Ahab hands the letter over to the stranger captain regardless, but, the sea again dictating the scene, the roll of the boat brings the letter to Gabriel, who sticks it with a boat-knife and throws it back to Ahab, expostulating that Ahab could better deliver a letter to a dead sailor, for he is ‘soon going that way.’
The inclusion of these two seers, though neither sets foot aboard the Pequod, was a chance to make one further reference to Jonah, this time not as the actual biblical Jonah, but Jonah as the conceptual role one sailor simply must take in the hierarchy of a ship at sea. Rather than the biblical Jonah, the colloquial sailor-Jonah is simply the man on the bottom of the totem pole, a man branded as bad luck incarnate. While among the Sailor cards there are some ponderous players, it is clear who will be the first to go over in a storm, or in a fight, or even in a questionable accident. These men must go with you in the hunt, for no matter what gains you have made, their prophecies will ring true in the end, and all those gains will be for naught.
Original Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.