In this rather strange chapter, an unnamed narrator (perhaps Ishmael, although he does not announce himself) observes as various members of the ship’s crew inspect the gold doubloon (made in Quito, and inscribed with various patterns and island scenes) that Ahab nailed to the main-mast on the day he challenged the Pequod to find and kill Moby Dick. Ahab himself sees in the doubloon “infernal” signs—marks of the devil and of Ahab himself—Ahab sees himself in all things around him. Starbuck sees the doubloon as a sign of cosmic goodness and of God’s mercy; Stubb reads the Zodiac on the coin and sees a series of inside, sexually-based jokes. Stubb then spots Queequeg on the deck, but he is not looking at the doubloon—he is only studying his pronouns in an English grammar book. And Pip, last of the crew, understands the doubloon to spell the crew’s demise, once Moby Dick is found.
Another of the book’s fugues, although here it is not clear whether Ishmael himself is observing this activity, or whether it is told from the perspective of a different, omniscient narrator. Or, perhaps, Ishmael is simply making up what he thinks goes through the minds of his fellow-sailors. Melville uses this chapter to show that a symbol might be interpreted in different ways by different men. Here, then, the symbol of the gold doubloon assumes different importance depending on who is viewing it. This relates, once more, to the book’s theme of “subjectivity,” or the way in which experiences tend to vary depending on the viewpoint of the person observing that experience.