The number three is very symbolic in Moby Dick, and examples of its use can be found throughout the novel. For example, the Pequod has three captains (Bildad, Peleg, and Ahab), the crew chases Moby Dick for three days, and the ship is propelled via wind in the sails of its three masts. However, the most significant reference to the number three comes between the exchange between Ahab and Starbuck in the chapter entitled “Candles.”
In this chapter, the tops of the three masts are surrounded by St. Elmo’s fire and according to Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, look “like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.” It is the religious reference in this simile that underscores the importance of the number three. In this context, the significance of the number three in Christianity certainly comes to mind. After all, the holy trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), the three days Christ lay in the tomb, and the number of wise men who visited the Christ-child would not be lost on the ‘Christian’ members of the Pequod. Thus, the superstitious sailors view this seemingly supernatural occurrence as an omen.
Ahab believes this occurrence to be a sign of fortune, and he believes it means that the crew will be successful in the hunt for the white whale. He does his best to convince the crew of this fact by snaring some of the fire on the end of the harpoon. However, Starbuck views it as an evil omen as he tells Ahab in no uncertain terms that “God is against thee, old man.” Certainly much can be made and probably has been made of this exchange, but simply put, the number three is primarily used in the novel because of its symbolic and religious meaning.