Chapter 118: The Quadrant

Then gazing at his quadrant, and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered: “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth’s horizon are the glances of man’s eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament. Curse thee, thou quadrant!” dashing it to the deck, “no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level deadreckoning, by log and by line; THESE shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye,” lighting from the boat to the deck, “thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!”

—The Quadrant

Taken as one from a series of chapters describing objects through which Ahab expresses his tantamount inner feelings and dark rage, The Quadrant is a simple example of Melville’s use of navigational instruments and calculations as literary devices to further delineate Ahab from his setting, and provide meaningful tangible symbols to express his madness. From Chapter 30: The Pipe, to Chapter 130: The Hat, Ishmael frequently witnesses Ahab’s struggle with physical objects, the appearance of things—his frustration at being stuck in the visible world, not being allowed to witness the greater machinations of the universe. Navigation itself, by the stars and geometric instruments, symbolically appears as a god-like, mythological pursuit. But it is the stubborn pragmatism of such world-of-appearance devices that so aggravates Ahab, prompting him to all the more rapidly exit the tangible world.

The destruction of his quadrant, along with Ahab’s trick at re-magnetizing the needle and the deliberate course he sets from his chart, leaves a trail of physical objects that this supernatural man has used, struggled against, and ultimately discarded.

Though the Quadrant, for Ahab, symbolizes his lack of agency, its chapter effect gives our player the agency that the actual tool delivers, much like the Chart. The Mission to guide the ship to greater heights of madness allows players to choose whether or not to destroy the tool, as Ahab does, and drive the narrative forward to the next chapter, thus eliminating the Quadrant’s effect—i.e. smashing the device upon the deck.

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