Ishmael loops back to the story of Pip, a young African American boy from Connecticut, whose dancing and singing were reported upon many chapters previous. Pip was a “ship-boy,” not permitted to go into the whaleboats, on account of his lack of strength. But one afternoon, when one of Stubb’s oarsmen fell ill, Pip was placed in the whale boat and made to turn an oar. At the first sign of danger, however, Pip became frightened and jumped out of the boat, and though Stubb rescued him and cut away from the whale he was hunting, he vowed never to pick Pip up again.
As an African American boy Pip is one of the weakest characters on the Pequod, notable primarily for the entertainment he provides for others. One would hope that in a society the weakest would be protected by the strong. But the community on board the Pequod is profit driven, and the weakness of the weak—such as Pip's jumping overboard—is a nuisance that the strong, such as Stubb, will not countenance.
But later that afternoon, Pip again become affrighted and jumped out of the boat; this time, Stubb did not pick up Pip, thinking that perhaps the other two whaleboats might do so. But those boats went on hunting for whales, and Pip was left in the open ocean for over an hour before being rescued by the Pequod. After this, Pip became a “holy fool” or an “idiot,” accustomed to speaking in tongues and to prophecy. Ishmael notes that Pip will become important as the narrative continues, and that he (Ishmael), too, will be knocked clear of a whaleboat later on, and will be forced to swim in the open sea.
Because of his weakness and the cruelty and neglect of the strong, Pip is left isolated in the vast ocean and goes mad. Yet his madness is of a different sort than Ahab's. Ahab's madness is one of pride, of an overpowering sense of self demanding some sort of vengeance against Moby Dick and the world. Pip's is a madness of a loss of self, of blankness. It is interesting that this sort of madness makes Pip a "holy fool" who speaks in prophecy, as in losing himself Pip seems to become connected to the mysteries of the world, and yet his prophecies (like all prophecies) are totally indecipherable by normal men.