The Pequod comes near a German whaling vessel, called the Virgin, which is “pure” or “clean” of oil, meaning it has not captured a whale yet on its voyage, and does not even have oil enough to light its lamps. The Pequod donates some oil to the virgin and to Derick, its captain, in order to help it along. Very soon thereafter, a pod of sperm whales is spotted nearby, with one in particular bringing up the rear. This large, old whale seems injured in some way, and the three whaleboats of the Pequod set out after it.
Tashtego a few chapters earlier was reborn, birthed from a whale's head. The Virgin is a sort of joke, then—just as a virgin cannot have children, the Virgin does not require its men to be reborn as it has caught no whales. Further, this Virgin is also a Virgin in the sense of being inexperienced in comparison to the skillful knowledge, born from experience, held by those on the Pequod. Meanwhile, was the discovery of the pod of whales karma for the good deed done by the Pequod to the Virgin, or just a coincidence?
Stubb, Flask, and Starbuck, in command of the three whaleboats, become angry when they realize that the Virgin is also attempting to track the whale, even though the Pequod just did the Virgin a good turn by giving it oil. But Stubb, Flask, and Starbuck are too skilled for Derick, a poor whaler, and his crew—they throw their harpoons over Derick’s whaleboat, impaling the large whale, nearly running over Derick’s boat, and eventually dragging the whale back to the Pequod.
The Virgin is also inexperienced when it comes to the social rules and obligations of whaling. Yet its inexperience and lack of skill renders it barely a competitor to the men of the Pequod, who skillfully hunt and kill. There is a tension here between the frivolousness and purity of innocence, and the skill and deadliness of experience.
The cutting-in process seems promising, as the whale is old and its stores of sperm oil look large. But before the cutting-in can begin, the Pequod begins listing heavily to one side—the whale is not floating, as is customary for dead sperm whales, but is sinking, and there is nothing the crew of the Pequod can do to keep it upright. Queequeg eventually cuts through the thick iron chain holding the whale to the ship, and the whale sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Ishmael states that, sometimes, these whales rise again after several days—they fill with gas from their own decomposition and are pushed to the surface. The Pequod leaves the whale behind, however, and continues sailing. Ishmael spots the crew of the Virgin hunting a fin-back—whose spout looks like a sperm whale’s, but who cannot be caught because it swims too quickly for a whaleboat. Ishmael laughs inwardly at the stupidity and selfishness of the crew of the Virgin.
The Pequod gets its rightful kill—which seemed like karma—and the whale turns out to be diseased and almost to sink the ship. So is that karma too? Or is nature taking vengeance on the Pequod for the suffering it caused the whale to endure? Or is this just a coincidence, too? The possibilities for interpretation are endless. The Virgin, meanwhile, continues its innocent blundering, as Ishmael (who once knew nothing of whaling but now is himself experienced), mocks them.