Ishmael takes a moment to introduce the leadership of the Pequod. Starbuck, the first mate, is a Nantucketer and a Quaker, and Ishmael describes him as a skinny, tanned man seemingly “born of a drought,” as though his “skin is too tight.” Ishmael notes that Starbuck is also a superstitious man, more out of an abundance of caution than out of ignorance, and that he is a careful sailor who tells his fellow men always to be afraid of the whale.
Starbuck is an intriguing character—a moral pragmatist and a coward because of it; a careful man who fears convictions that are out of proportion, but who having no such convictions himself is unable to stand against them. That he has wound up as the namesake for a global coffee chain and the best character in Battlestar Galactica (in our opinion) has less to do with his traits and more with the awesomeness of his name. That name does, though, suggest his efforts to "buck" fate (or "stars") in the form of Ahab's quest.
Ishmael goes on to qualify the exact nature of Starbuck’s bravery and personal courage, which, he indicates, the later narrative will reveal. Starbuck, he says, is a man of physical bravery, though he tends to minimize risk if he can. But Starbuck is terrified by more “spiritual” torments, of the kind that will come to afflict the crew of the Pequod. Ishmael says that it is difficult for him to write about the “abasement” of any man’s moral strength, implying again that perhaps Starbuck’s spiritual courage was wanting in the later pursuit of the whale. Ishmael ends the chapter by noting that he will later extol the virtues of other courageous men, whose courage might not be immediately evident.
Ishmael wants the reader to know, without ambiguity, that Starbuck will be central to the novel’s moral considerations. Indeed, as Ahab later states, during the chase, Starbuck’s caution and Stubb’s bravado will form the “two poles” of human behavior, between which Ahab tries to steer. But, in truth, Ahab is neither patient and cautious, like Starbuck, nor impetuous, like Stubb. His is a third way—one characterized by “monomania,” or the pursuit of a single objective, at the expense of all others.