That next morning, Queequeg informs Ishmael that his little wooden god, named Yojo, has told him that Ishmael is to select the sailing vessel on which they will voyage, and that, furthermore, Ishmael is to do this according to his own free will and inclination. Although Ishmael wants Queequeg’s advice in choosing the ship, he acquiesces and goes out to find a boat. Ishmael isolates three possibilities: the Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod, the last named for an “extinct tribe of Massachusetts Indians.” Ishmael’s inclinations guide him to the last ship, and so he chooses it.
A good example of the interplay of fate and free will in the novel. On the one hand, Yojo and Queequeg both want Ishmael to choose the ship on which they will sail. Therefore, they trust implicitly in Ishmael’s judgment. But they also believe it is preordained that Ishmael’s good judgment will result in . . . their fate, meaning that whatever their future is, it will come about according to Ishmael’s wishes. In some sense, too, Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick is both self-initiated and (he believes) beyond his immediate control.
Ishmael looks over the Pequod, and finds it to be an old and beautiful ship, adorned, as he would later find out, by its owner and former captain, Peleg, with a great deal of carving and a dark stain of paint—all of which indicate its many voyages around the world. Ishmael goes up to the decks and sees a teepee-like structure pitched there. Going inside, he finds an old sailor and asks if that man is the captain of the boat, and announces that he, Ishmael, would very much like to serve as a sailor on the Pequod.
Melville knows that, in order to “build up” the character of Ahab, he must first provide the reader with several “false starts” in that direction. He therefore makes it seem that Peleg might be the captain of the vessel—until, that is, Peleg admits that the ship’s captain is an even more mysterious man, one who very rarely shows his face above-decks.
This old sailor asks whether Ishmael has any experience on boats, and when Ishmael says he has been on merchant ships, the old man becomes enraged, saying that sailing on a whaling vessel is different, and far more difficult, than sailing on a merchant ship. The old sailor then asks if Ishmael is trustworthy, and tells him to look at Captain Ahab before he decides to sail on the Pequod. Ishmael is surprised, thinking that the old man is the captain of the boat, but the man introduces himself as Peleg, part owner of the boat along with another man named Bildad. Peleg tells Ishmael that Ahab lost his leg to a whale—and not just any whale, but the “monstrousest parmacetty [Spermaceti] that ever chipped a boat.”
The first introduction of Ahab’s disability—the loss of his leg. Peleg makes it seem that, in some sense, Ahab’s quest is understandable—that any man who has been “dismasted” might reasonably hold a grudge against the whale who ate his leg. But other characters in the novel, notably Starbuck and, later, Boomer, say it is wrong to impute human motives to Moby Dick—that he is, instead, simply an animal, and a ferocious one, and that one cannot exact revenge against a “dumb brute.”
Peleg pushes Ishmael further, asking if Ishmael is willing to throw a harpoon down a “whale’s throat,” and whether Ishmael can’t “see the world,” as many potential whalemen wish, by just standing on the docks and looking at the ocean, instead of putting himself in danger on the high seas. But Ishmael insists that he is up to the challenge and ready to be a whaler, and at this, Peleg tells him to go below-decks, talk to Bildad, and sign up for the next voyage.
Ishmael places special importance on the notion of sailing on a whaling ship, rather than on any merchant vessel. As will be revealed later on, Ishmael believes that whaling itself is a noble calling, prefigured in history, with a vast number of literary, philosophical, and religious dimensions unknown to common fishing ships.
Ishmael writes that both Peleg and Bildad were Nantucket Quakers, but are hardly peaceful for that—though they speak the odd Quaker vernacular, which sounds like the language of the Bible, they are angry men with a fighting spirit. Ishmael says that Peleg is a “blusterer,” a talkative and somewhat hypocritical man, and that Bildad is “more pious,” more like a typical Quaker, though he also works his men hard and gives them very little in the way of rations or money. Ishmael believes his pay should be the 275th lay, or 1/275 of the ship’s profits at the end of whaling. But Ishmael is shocked to learn that Bildad and Peleg will offer him only 1/777 of the profits, known in the industry as a “long lay.”
In the novel, characters tend to be caricatures, in a positive sense of the word—they are often defined by a few strong characteristics, and might be interpreted as embodiments of a given set of values. Thus, Peleg believes religiosity isn’t important in a sailor; Bildad does. Peleg freely takes the name of the Lord in vain; Bildad would never do so. The way pay on a whaling ship works is important: the men do not make a salary. The make a percentage of the profits of the ship. Speaking in modern language, every sailor has "equity" in the voyage. They make their fortune—literally and figuratively—through the luck and skill of their collective effort.
Ishmael is offended at this paltry offer, but believing this is the ship for him, and not caring too much for the pay, he signs anyway, and asks if he can bring his friend Queequeg along the next day. Peleg and Bildad agree. As Ishmael is walking back to Queequeg, however, Ishmael asks Peleg if he can meet Ahab, now that he is signed on for the voyage. But Peleg says that Ahab is out of sorts, not taking visitors at the moment. And when Ishmael asks if Ahab isn’t the name of a Biblical king so wicked that, when he was killed, “dogs wouldn’t lick his blood,” Peleg warns Ishmael not to bring up this story around Ahab.
The Biblical tales told in Moby Dick, including the references to Rachel and her orphans, to Ahab, and to Jonah, are typically stories of discomfort, sadness, and cruelty. Although the story of Jonah has a positive ending, the stories of Ahab and Rachel do not, and Melville appears especially awed by the overwhelming power and mystery of these stories—by the idea that God, rather than being just a source of infinite goodness, is also a force of “fate,” or apparently indiscriminate cruelty to men.
Before Ishmael leaves, Peleg tells him that Ahab was a little “out of his head” after his leg was bitten off by a certain whale, and that Ahab is somewhat “moody,” but he is a good captain, and he has a young wife and child living in Nantucket. Ishmael thinks a little on the idea of Ahab as he walks back to the Try Pots, but says that other ideas and excitement about the voyage began to preoccupy him, and so he forgets Ahab for the time being.
This is the first explicit reference to the fact that Ahab might not be entirely of sound mind. It is not clear, as the novel progresses, to what extent Ahab is “insane,” and to what extent his pride, drive, and anger have simply taken control of his life. Ahab does appear, at best, to have a total disregard for anything except his personal whale-hunt.