The Albatross

At that moment the two wakes were fairly crossed, and instantly, then, in accordance with their singular ways, shoals of small harmless fish, that for some days before had been placidly swimming by our side, darted away with what seemed shuddering fins, and ranged themselves fore and aft with the stranger’s flanks. Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings.

“Swim away from me, do ye?” murmured Ahab, gazing over into the water. There seemed but little in the words, but the tone conveyed more of deep helpless sadness than the insane old man had ever before evinced. But turning to the steersman, who thus far had been holding the ship in the wind to diminish her headway, he cried out in his old lion voice,—”Up helm! Keep her off round the world!”

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

—The Albatross

While the Pequod’s encounter with the Albatross, a whaleship bound for home, lacks no significance in the overall sequential drive of the work, it’s bare symbolism didn’t warrant a full Chapter card, but rather a small symbolic gesture, taken on the part of all the players.

The Albatross is a foil ship for the Pequod, homeward bound, stripped of all accoutrement, having been 3 years without touching land, her hull bleached white as her sails by salt and spray. Her appearance, and rapid disappearance, is interpreted in melancholy by the seamen aboard the Pequod, in that way that sailors especially relish omens. The token gesture of discarding a weak sailor is meant to cast a shadow over the ensuing game—whatever unnamable thing it is the players will face, the weak will be the first to go overboard, and be lost.

Original Image Courtesy of the University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.

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