Ishmael tells the reader that he, too, was present during the wild revelry of that night, and that he was caught up in the excitement surrounding the pursuit of Moby Dick, which he initially supported. Ishmael states that, because it is often difficult for sailors to communicate with each other on the open seas (they typically do so only when they encounter each other side by side in the water), only rumors of Moby Dick circulated among whalemen. And these rumors tended to paint Moby Dick as an unconquerable monster, one capable of maiming and killing anyone in his path.
Ishmael then answers this “narrative quandary” by saying that, instead of writing the play, he was in fact an observer of the play from aboard the ship. This points to the fact that some other narrative intelligence must be “picking up” and “filling in” parts of the novel that Ishmael does not relate directly to the reader. The most obvious “other voice” is that of Melville himself, but it might just as easily be Ahab’s internal perspective—the captain might see the ship as one grand stage, on which a play unfolds.
Ishmael goes on to say that some sailors believe Moby Dick to be immortal, incapable of being killed. Ishmael says that Moby Dick is notable for his “high brow,” his “hump” on his back, a “deformed lower jaw,” and, of course, his whiteness, which will be discussed at length in the next chapter. Ishmael then relates to the reader the nature of Ahab’s first encounter with Moby Dick. Essentially, the White Whale stove (or capsized) the three small whale-boats in pursuit, and Ahab, in the water and swimming to safety, saw Moby Dick and attempted to stab him with a small knife. But Moby Dick took hold of Ahab’s leg and bit it cleanly off.
Nothing about Moby Dick is ordinary. He is large and strange looking—his jaw is misshapen—and his whiteness is noticeable above all. One of the ironies of the novel is that the crew of the Pequod must search so intently for a creature that is immediately recognizable—a whale, indeed, that many crews on many different whale-ships have seen, across the oceans of the world. Moby Dick is well known and unmistakable, and yet he is hard to find. In this way—unmissable but hard to find—Moby Dick resembles God.
On this, Ahab’s previous voyage, Ahab was taken back onto the Pequod and was wrapped in a strait-jacket as his leg-wound healed, for the bite had caused him to go “mad” during the return to the United States. Ishmael reports that Ahab’s “monomania,” or obsession with the whale, was not born of the bite itself but of the aftermath of the bite, when Ahab seemed to attribute the cruel powers of fate, and his ill luck, entirely to the whale—the whale then achieving a kind of “supernatural” significance. Ishmael ends the chapter by saying that, in hindsight, there was no mate or harpooneer on the vessel strong enough to stop Ahab—Starbuck was too morally week, Stubb too enthusiastic for the fight, and Flask too “mediocre.” But Ishmael cannot “plumb” Ahab’s motivations any further, since he is not entirely sure what drove Ahab to his own and the Pequod’s eventual destruction.
“Monomania” means an irrational concern with a single idea or object. In this case, then, Ahab’s monomania is expressed not just in a total concern with the white whale, but in an inability to achieve satisfaction unless that whale is hunted and killed. Ahab knows that to kill the whale would not change anything in the world—it would not, for example, bring back his leg—but, in killing Moby Dick, Ahab hopes to, and believes he must, win a symbolic victory against the cruelty of nature and fate. That Ahab would even seek such a battle—against the abstractions of life and faith—that causes Ishmael both to be unable to truly understand Ahab and to eventually curse Ahab’s pride. But note how Ahab, like the whale who bit him, is at his heart unknowable, and what power such mystery gives to him.