Near the Ishmael describes the entrance to the Spouter Inn, near which hangs a painting of a dark sea-scene, in many dark hues. Ishmael puzzles over the subject of the scene, and eventually concludes that the picture shows a “half-foundered” (or sinking) ship with three masts—although it could also portray a leviathan, or whale, in the murky water. The inn’s bar also contains a great many old harpoons and spears, for catching whales, and the bar itself is shaped like a whale’s jaw. The locals call the bartender there Jonah, because he appears to live in the whale’s mouth.
One of the novel’s first of many intimations that dangers await the Pequod at sea. In particular, Ishmael seems fixated on the idea that a leviathan, or whale, would be capable of capsizing an entire ship simply by ramming into it. Of course, the Pequod will be destroyed by Moby Dick in exactly this way, making the painting an accurate foreshadowing of the novel’s events. And yet, the painting is also inscrutable, and therefore what it shows is very open to interpretation, and so the way that the painting plays into the fate of the Pequod is not clear.
After eating supper nearby, Ishmael finds the landlord, Peter Coffin, and asks if he has a bed available for the night. Jonah replies that there isn’t much space, but that Ishmael can share a room, and bed, with a mysterious harpooneer. At first Ishmael agrees, although he is less than enthusiastic about sharing a bed (the innkeeper thinks sharing a cot is normal for sailors, but Ishmael remarks to himself that, in fact, even in cramped sailing conditions, sailors usually have their own bunks). But as the evening wears on, and the crew of the Grampus, another whaling ship, enters the bar and begins drinking heavily, Ishmael wonders when the harpooneer will arrive, and what kind of person he will be. Ishmael also hears many of the sailors speak in hushed, reverential tones about Bulkington, a fellow-sailor on the Grampus.
Another of the novel’s features is its reference to other whaling vessels. Like men in general, there appears in the novel to be great variation between the disposition of the various whalers with whom Ishmael comes in contact. There are whalers like those on the Grampus, who return from the sea ready to drink and carouse, perhaps because the whale-hunt has been successful. And there are those like the crew of the Rachel, encountered at the end of the novel, who have suffered horrible misfortunes on the high seas. That sailors all have individual bunks attests to the "dignity" of sea-life, and the sense of each sailor as an individual within a larger society, making it a metaphor for society or political state.
The innkeeper teases Ishmael when Ishmael expresses anxiety about sharing his bed with the harpooneer. The innkeeper tells him that the harpooneer is out that night “selling his head,” and intimates that the harpooneer has dark skin and is from a “far-off” place. Ishmael wonders what it might mean for the man to be “selling heads,” and the innkeeper finally reveals that the harpooneer is from the area around New Zealand, and he sells dried, shriveled heads as a kind of “curio” from that region. The innkeeper shows Ishmael into the bedroom where the harpooneer is staying, and Ishmael marvels at the strangeness of the harpooneer’s clothing, lying folded in the room—Ishmael believes it resembles a doormat.
The first reference to Queequeg, who will become Ishmael’s “bosom friend” and closest confidant aboard the Pequod. Coffin, the innkeeper, appears to do his best to convince Ishmael that Queequeg is dangerous. This is in keeping with widespread fear, among whaling communities, of the “heathens” from faraway places who often served as harpooneers. Yet exactly these “foreign” men were chosen to work the harpoons because the jobs were often considered “too dangerous” for white men to perform.
Ishmael takes off his clothes and crawls into the small bed, then tries to go to sleep. After a short time, however, Ishmael notices a man coming into the darkened room—the harpooneer. Ishmael notices, with horror and fear, that the man is from a “foreign land,” that he carries a tomahawk and a large head, in which he seems to keep his dried heads, and that he has tattoos in dark purple ink, all over his face, neck, arms, and back. Ishmael considers jumping out the window of the room, but they are on the second floor, he does not want to behave “like a coward,” and he worries that he will not be able to escape successfully without hurting himself.
An instance of Ishmael doing his best to convince himself of his own personal and psychological strength. At later instances in the novel, too, as when Ishmael falls out of a capsizing whaling-boat, Ishmael must remind himself that whaling is a dangerous business, and that he has signed up for exactly this. There are other sailors aboard the Pequod, however, who appear to relish the dangers they encounter—these include men like Stubb, the second mate.
The harpooneer begins a religious ceremony wherein he prays to a small black wooden idol, which Ishmael calls a “manikin.” After this prayer ceremony, the harpooneer turns around and, seeing Ishmael in the bed, assumes Ishmael is dangerous, and brandishes his tomahawk. Ishmael, terrified, calls for Peter Coffin. Coffin arrives in the room and tells Ishmael and the harpooneer, named Queequeg, that the two are to share a room together. Ishmael criticizes Coffin for not saying, earlier, that Queequeg is a “cannibal” (by which Ishmael means a native of the Pacific islands in which the practice of cannibalism sometimes occurs). Coffin, laughing, replies that Queequeg is a peaceful man, despite his cannibalism, and that he will happily share the room with Ishmael.
As it turns out, Coffin has been playing a joke on Ishmael. Queequeg's peacefulness is part of the image of tolerance depicted in the book, of men of all different stripes necessarily coming together in the working of the ship and pursuit of fortune. Queequeg’s religious idol, revealed to be named “Yojo,” plays little role in the novel, other than to comfort Queequeg, and to convince him that Ishmael will be the one to select the whaling ship on which they set out. Ishmael then selects the Pequod, setting in motion the events of the novel. Queequeg therefore seems content to entrust his fate to the whims, as he interprets them, of this small wooden idol, or “manikin.”
This convinces Ishmael, who remarks to himself that it is “better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Ishmael tells Coffin to tell Queequeg, who speaks in in a kind of broken English Ishmael doesn’t entirely understand, to put away his tomahawk (which is also his pipe), since smoking in the bedroom would be dangerous to both men. Ishmael and Queequeg go to sleep, and Ishmael remarks that “he never slept better in his life.”
A famous line in the novel—Ishmael here realizes that social distinctions between “heathen” and Christian are probably less important than the human distinctions between good and dishonest men. Ishmael will encounter similar instances that will test his prejudices, or preconceptions about men unlike him, while aboard the ship.