Pip

But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

—The Castaway

Shipkeeper. Most often Pip is likened to the fool from Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Ahab playing the part of the mad king, soothed only by the likening madness of his prophetic, comical, (non)sensical fool, his only companion in the storm of his tragedy.[1] After Pip’s unfortunate series of accidents, and his near-drowning, the boy speaks as though he were already drowned, and wishes his fellow sailors would go and find the drowned boy, somewhere in the depths, the ‘coward’ he calls himself, after having been branded one by the others. His madness speaks clear truth to crazy Ahab, but is somehow not welcomed by him. The slippery relationship between insanity and truth in the mouth of the fool gives sense to Lear’s madness, the soothsayer’s words are at once devastating to the ego and ultimately calming—what better thing to hear than the albeit horrible truth, in the midst of such existential fervor?

In the end, Pip is brought to the cabin by Ahab and instructed to wait there for him, after Ahab fulfills his terrible purpose and faces Moby Dick. Pip pleads with Ahab to stay, in the end speaking lucidly about the coming destruction, and the futile nature of Ahab’s obsession. But Ahab is in no mood for this boy’s madness to cure his own. He leaves Pip there, to be sunk with the ship, even deems him Captain in his absence, though Pip knows well how soon he’ll be the Captain of a wreck at the bottom of the sea, where his poor drowned soul went the day his body was not drowned, and bore witness to the truths that lay hidden there.

Pip drawing Ahab out of play is a reference to Chapter 129: The Cabin, in which Ahab brings the boy into his cabin and leaves him there. The strategic significance of sacrificing Pip to take Ahab out of play is not often significant, and can at times even be a burden, when a player with both Ahab and Pip must shelter Pip to avoid losing Ahab. On the opposite side of the coin, during The Forge and The Candles, the death of Pip will rob a powerful player of one of his strongest and fiercest men, soothing the existential rage of the Old Mogul, though only for the stretch of one chapter.

Original Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


[1] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (San Francisco: City Lights, 1947), 63.

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