I chose a reoccurring event in the novel as opposed to a term, but the symbolism and deeper reading that can be done with them is just as complex. Throughout the text, the Pequod meets six different boats with six different crews and context within the story. Melville is quite obviously saying something about those aboard the ships by how the encounters are crafted. It would be of benefit to see what he is saying about each, and why he brings in these elements when he does.
From the get-go, Melville establishes an admiration for “savages” – most readily seen in his accounts of Queequeg. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the encounters are used to define the role of other civilized whaling vessels in the story.
The first encounter, with the Virgin, makes a statement early on that the German and Dutch whaling industry used to flourish and have more vessels than any other nation. Now, though, they are the fewest in number (318). Though this is a glimpse into the history of the whaling scene, it can be developed into a view of the changing powers of the world and hints at whom Melville favors. When the two boats have had their initial meeting, there is a chase for a great old whale. Following the laws of Loose-Fish, the race is intense. Melville does not leave the event as a matter of sport or competition; he creates a cowardly and dastardly image of the German captain whom throws the lamp oil Stubbs gave him overboard (321). Perhaps Melville wanted there to be some drama, but it cannot be that simple. Stubbs also has a repertoire of labels for the rival captain – German, Dutch dogger, and Yarman. Not only does he call him two different lineages, readily insulting I’m sure to any German or Dutch persons, but the use of Yarman is purely derogatory – like calling a Northerner a Yank or a working man Grabowski. It would seem just another instance of color among whalers if Melville did not make fun of the other two European whaling ships that happen the Pequod.
The Rose-Bud is next – Melville has fun with this one. I think it becomes obvious in this chapter that he holds some animosity for the French – “…Crappoes of Frenchmen are but poor devils in the fishery…” (363). Stubbs revels in mocking the captain and his ship, but does not stop there. In the following chapter, we see the motive, Ambergris, behind swindling the dried whale from the aggravated crew. As with the Germans, Melville comments on the lack of skill and knowledge of the very profession the men partake in. He makes a point to make the captain of the Rose-Bud a novice, “his first voyage” (365). Not only that, but the members of the crew allowed their captain to be swindled (as I’m sure more than one person spoke/understand English) – aroma or not. It’s a bit of stretch, but around the time Melville wrote Moby-Dick, Europe was all abuzz with revolution due to social unrest and adjustment. I am focusing on the encounters of fellow whaling vessels, so attention to the detail of descent throughout the novel would no doubt reveal other satirical elements.
The last three boats encountered all hailed from Nantucket. We need not have read more than a few chapters to see how much Melville appreciate this harbor. A common theme among the ships, though very different in nature, is reason – rational thought. The Bachelor, not coincidentally the first Nantucket boat met and the most successful of any boat mentioned, offers Ahab reprieve from his black brow. Of course he refuses, but we are shown a side of whaling that is new to this point: real success. For the first time, the crew stares on in envy of another ship. Being a Nantucket-manned ship as well, the Pequod thirsts for oil as well as its reward – objects of a hollow goal to their captain (money). This may have been a turning point in the novel; a real chance for Starbuck to re-establish his capitalist goals and spark those New England needs, but the show goes on.
The Rachel and Delight have both suffered, though are reasonable in the aftermath. Both encounters end with picture-perfect foreshadowing and both offer Ahab reasons to deviate from his unholy crusade. The subtly of symbolism in this instance of the Rachel is out-weighed by the significance I found when I researched the biblical Rachel. She was a bargaining tool of her father, who married her to Jacob – but not until Jacob was tricked into marrying her older sister as well. Jacob and his wives leave their father. A long story short, Rachel stole idols from her father, and was cursed to death by them. She would die shortly after child birth. The parallel, though faint, is in the Rachel’s decimation and death at the hands of Ahab’s idol – the White Whale. Furthermore, Ahab does not heed such an event and will suffer the same fate by the jaws of a false god. All this pays tribute to Melville’s use of the Nantucketers to portray a sense of reason that Ahab can only be slapped with so many times before his unlearned lesson kills him. Each encounter serves as a lesson, observed or not, and a look at the world as Melville knew it.