The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.
One of the jolliest members of the Pequod was a young African-American boy named Pip. He liked to sing and play the tambourine. But something happened which forever changed Pip’s personality, and that something was this…
When one of the oarsmen in Stubb’s harpoon boat sprained his hand, little Pip was called in as a replacement. Never having done this job before, Pip was quite nervous and not a very effective oarsman. The first time the boat was lowered to chase a whale, Pip got so scared that he jumped out of the boat, whereupon he got tangled in the whale-line and almost strangled to death. The harpooneer Tashtego reluctantly cut him loose, which meant that the whale escaped. Pip was scolded by Stubb and told that, should he jump overboard again, he would be left.
Sure enough, the next time the boat gave chase, Pip (again) jumped overboard and no one saved him. He was left alone in the vast ocean. Sadly, a whale was seen as much more valuable than an African American boy, as Stubb explained: “We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama.” This is, of course, a reference to slavery, which was still legal in the 1850s, when Moby Dick is set.
So Pip was left adrift in the immense sea. This experience profoundly traumatized him. Even after he was rescued by the Pequod, he was never the same, as Ishmael comments, “From that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot.” And yet, in his traumatized insanity, Ishmael supposes, Pip saw something divine and transcendent:
"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 miserman, 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; 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 celestial though, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”