Pip’s Strange Quest


As I said earlier, many members of the Pequod crew were on religious quests. One of those was Pip. An astonishing incident occurred to a little negro boy, Pip, “the most insignificant of the Pequod’s crew.” After all he was a mere boy and a black one at that. Except that Pip was very bright, we are told.

When one of the men who was scheduled to go  the small whaling boats pursuing  a whale that had  harpooned, sprained his hand little Pip was put in the boat to temporarily replace him. Ordinarily he would have stayed with the mother ship.  He was really too young and small. When the boat approach the harpooned the tail of the whale whipped at the small boat and it came right under Pip’s boat  and he veritably leaped out of the small boat and then was dragged by the whale as it fled. The men had to cut Pip free,  but that meant losing the whale. The first time it happened he got a stern lecture from Stubb, one of the mates. He was reminded that “a whale would sell for 30 times what he would sell for.”  Being a black boy in slavery he was worth a lot less than the whale and next time he would not be saved. Stubb told him men loved money more than their fellow men.

Well, sure enough it happened again and this time Stubb was true to his word and the boat in hot pursuit of the whale did not stop to pick up Pip when he was cut loose, although Stubb thought the next whaling boat would pick him up. There were two behind him. After all the ocean was dead calm that day. Unfortunately, the next two boats did not pick him up.  Alas poor Pip was lost at sea. Eventually the mother ship found and rescued Pip, but by then he had suffered such terrible loneliness in the ocean the experience  damaged his mind. In an astonishing but mysterious passage As Ishmael described it this way:

“from that day the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”


What is God doing with his foot on the treadle of a loom?  What is miser-merman wisdom? This abandonment of Pip presaged another abandonment later—that of Ishmael himself.  We will talk about that later. When one feels abandoned by fellows or God, or worse both, one believes one’s God is “indifferent” and madness is apt to follow. I think frequently slaves felt that God had abandoned them. Can you really blame them?  If he did not abandon them, where was he? He was supposed to be omni-present.

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