On the surface, the Town-Ho story has little to do with the book. However, chapter 54 has several functions:
- Like the previous chapter "The Gam", it lets us know more about whaling, specifically about life on whaling ships and conflicts between crew members.
- It tells 1 of the stories about Moby Dick.
- The story establishes the meaning of Moby Dick, to Ishmael and to us, depending on how you look at Steelkilt and Radney.
Let's see what happens: Steelkilt jokes about Radney in front of others=> Radney orders Steelkilt to sweep the floor, which isn't his job and which looks like a way of humiliating him=> proud, Steelkilt refuses to comply=> Radney raises a hammer=> Steelkilt threatens=> Radney swings the hammer at his face=> Steelkilt knocks down Radney=> [brawl, quarrel with captain, the lock-up, the hanging, etc.]=> when the captain, after hearing Steelkilt's threat (inaudible to everyone else), draws back, Radney steps forward and flogs Steelkilt=> Steelkilt prepares to kill Radney to revenge=> before he does it himself, Radney's killed by Moby Dick.
If we're on Steelkilt's side, because he simply refuses to do something that isn't his job, especially when he's already exhausted from working on the pumps, and hits Radney in self-defence (Radney's the one that has a hammer), and later suffers the injustice of being flogged, he has the right to be angry at the petty-minded, unreasonable and malicious Radney, and Moby Dick now looks like an avenger.
If we're not on Steelkilt's side, because his insults start the conflict and he's too proud to react in a milder or more compromising way to Radney's order, and later intends to push the matter farther by turning to murder, Moby Dick is the opposite of that- what do you call it? something that sides with the wrongdoer, making injustice a greater injustice, evil a greater evil.
If we're not on anyone side and see it as a meaningless cycle of violence and revenge, Moby Dick is the force of nature that intervenes and resolves the matter.
Or we can forget all of that- Moby Dick knows nothing and stands for nothing, it's but "a dumb brute", and devouring a seaman is what it does, as a whale. It's just a coincidence that Moby Dick appears at that moment, and it's Radney that is thrown overboard and gets killed. The incident means nothing, it's just the way the story is told that creates the illusion of meaning.