Hoo boy, this is a big one. Not in terms of length, it doesn’t compare to Cetology, but in terms of importance and… depth of meaning?
This is one of the most famous scenes in the book. If you know two scenes, it’s probably the ending and this one. Ahab is gonna play his hand, give a big speech, and reveal his innermost secrets. Not all of his secrets, mind you, just the deepest ones.
SUMMARY: One afternoon, Ahab is pacing the quarter-deck when he suddenly calls for the whole crew to be assembled before him. Then, he continues pacing as if they weren’t there, only beginning to speak when the mates begin to comment. Ahab gives a speech to the crew, telling them to be on the lookout for a while whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw, and the first who spots him will be given a golden doubloon, which he dramatically nails to the mainmast. The harpooneers recognize the description, each further elaborating on it, and Ahab admits that it is indeed Moby Dick that they are after, which is the very whale that bit off his own leg. The crew enthusiastically agree to go to all lengths to chase and catch the whale, but the mates, especially Starbuck, are taken aback.
While claiming to be fully able and willing to face Moby Dick if they happen to come across him, Starbuck cannot give his assent to seeking revenge on a dumb brute of an animal. First, he claims there is no money in it, and they are there on matters of business. Ahab counters that he will gladly pay whatever Starbuck wants in exchange for his help hunting Moby Dick. Then, Starbuck says that chasing an animal for vengeance seems blasphemous. Ahab gives a speech with an enigmatic meaning, essentially saying that it doesn’t matter what Moby Dick seems to be, he must be killed for the great evil it has wrought. The force of Ahab’s strange, blasphemous argument overwhelms Starbuck, and he cannot respond.
Ahab orders a great cup of grog brought up from the stores, and shares it with the whole crew. Then, he has the harpooneers take more grog in the sockets of their harpoons, and drink from there, sealing the pact of the whole crew, mates and all, to hunt Moby Dick with him, come what may.
Ahab retires below, to his cabin.
This is one that almost always makes it into any adaptation you may have seen, though I doubt they get through the whole speech that Ahab gives Starbuck. It gets pretty weird! And it’s also one of the most important, famous, and my personal favorite bits of the whole dang book. I’m going to devote… some time, to breaking that down.
First, though, let’s talk about the beginning of this chapter. I really love the way that the monomania of Ahab is described here:
Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze, too, upon that ribbed and dented brow; there also, you would see still stranger foot-prints—the foot-prints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.
Pacing and repeating the same thought over and over, thinking it through. Who hasn’t been there, at one time or another, with a big decision? Some important event or conversation you have to get through, making sure you’re really doing the right thing, repeating the same arguments back and forth in your mind.
Of course, this is being driven to a whole ‘nother extreme. He is, after all, considering his plan to basically change the whole purpose of the voyage. To take a step that could get him thrown in jail when they return to Nantucket, or cause a mutiny here and now, if he isn’t convincing. This is a very monumental step he’s considering taking, revealing his true purpose to everyone, outright, and trying to win their support for it.
Up until this point, he could call it off. He could just go through with this as a normal whaling voyage, go on out there and hunt a few whales, hope to get lucky. Or even abandon his quest for vengeance, give up on the whole matter. But this is Ahab we’re talking about. He is not going to just give up. But neither is this an easy thing, being openly defiant and declaring his intention to subvert the purpose of the voyage.
Remember, he doesn’t own this ship. Everyone on board has an interest in the voyage being successful, monetarily speaking. They would all have reason to not go along with this, if it would impact their own personal bottom line by taking valuable time and effort away from the regular whale hunt. The mastheads are manned all the time, there is never a moment when they are not at the ready for deadly combat and increased profit.
So, how does Ahab go about selling it, ultimately? Well, first of all he just acts like this is a normal part of their business, or at least not a great alteration. If they happen to come across a particular whale, he’ll give a reward to whoever spots it. They’re in the business of killing whales, so this is just a nice bonus for one lucky crewman.
He shows them the money. He shines it up on his very own jacket. And then he nails it to the mast, for all to see, any time of day. This is no hollow offer, it’s something that he is staking his own personal fortunes on. In order to truly sell the crew, he opens his heart and soul, and lets them finally see his own emotion.
“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!”
Remember, this is the same Ahab who always looks so intimidating, standing there on the quarter-deck, pacing back and forth, barely saying a word. The same pillar of stoicism who barely notices his own mates when he goes down to dinner with them, who didn’t show his face on deck until several weeks after the voyage began. Now, here he is, pleading with the crew, sobbing like a moose!
Ahab riles up the crew, gets them buying into his own narrative, his own feelings. The final appeal is to their bravery, their generosity of spirit. Playing the part of a poor old man who needs help, he appeals to them in his hour of need. How could it not work? Of course they’re going to be on his side, to take down this monster that dared to so harm their beloved captain!
Except, of course, the mates. In particular, Starbuck expresses shock and dismay at this new course:
“[…] but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market.”
They’re here for hunting whales, but only to make money! This whole vengeance business what not part of the deal, and it isn’t gonna help make them any money. This provokes Ahab’s first little private speech to Starbuck, where he promises that it will be plenty profitable to go along with him.
“Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money’s to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!”
My interpretation of this is that Ahab is promising the make good on any lost profit from his own personal fortune. Basically, that if Starbuck wants to be greedy and only concerned with money, then Ahab can play that game too, as long as he is able to get what he wants. After all, he’s committed enough to bring this plan out into the open and risk mutiny, what’s a little bribe to his first mate? A mere nothing, in the grand scheme of things.
Or perhaps he is just mocking Starbuck for his focus on money above all else. Especially as they are in the middle of the ocean, and on this new, more important mission of vengeance, what does a little money even matter? Either way, the effect is the same.
Starbuck has another objection, though. It’s… blasphemous! Moby Dick didn’t harm him intentionally, that would be impossible. It’s just a mere animal, it was acting out of its own animalistic instinct. There’s no culpability there, he may as well be angry at the sea itself, or a rock, as with a whale.
The only purpose of vengeance is to prevent others from taking the same action that inspired it, for fear of consequences. Other whales are not going to hear about what happened to Moby Dick and shy away from struggling when attacked by whalers. They do not have that ability to reason, or to communicate such ideas. Thus, is Starbuck’s logic.
It turns out, though, that Ahab has an even deeper layer to bring Starbuck down to.
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.
There is a lot of analysis out there about this particular quote. It’s really very fascinating, especially in such an old book!
Ahab is arguing here that everything, all things that are visible in the world, are merely a mask over the true reality beneath. This bit of metaphysics is something that has come up before, when Ishmael said that his body was but the lees, the outer reaches, of his true being.
Going further, every thing that happens in life can be sources to some unknown, unseen force that exists in this true reality. He’s not saying it’s God, he’s saying that there is just something out there, causing things to happen in the material world that affect us, in some way or another. And so, whatever that thing is, is his true enemy. The only way for him to make his intention known in this lower layer of True Reality is by killing Moby Dick. By taking his revenge, he believes he can pierce the veil and harm back that which has harmed him.
If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.
There is probably some sort of 19th century literary or philosophical context that I am completely missing here, but this seems just totally fucking wild. He’s saying that he’s gonna get back at some mysterious force behind the scenes of reality and fate by getting revenge on a whale! By doing this completely unreasonable thing, this thing that makes no sense at all by the laws of the natural world as he knows them, he hopes to cause some sort of metaphysical damage to the force that caused him to have his leg bitten off.
This is some crazy Lovecraftian sci-fi fantasy bullshit, right here. His argument that this isn’t blasphemous is basically… yeah, it is, I guess. But fair’s fair!
Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
If this thing, whatever it is, has the power to harm me, then by all rights I should be able to harm it back. Nobody is inherently better than anyone else, and that goes on all levels, across all planes of reality, for all types of entities that may or may not even exist. If the whale can bite his leg off, then he can kill it back, because that’s just how the laws of reality work, as they exist. Or, at the very least, he can damn well try!
This is kind of an interesting argument for a character in a book to be making, because we absolutely know what the mysterious force that caused Ahab’s leg to be bitten off was. The name of that strange fate-binding entity was Herman Melville, who is writing this story, and indeed Ahab’s whole existence, into being. But, Melville is a good enough writer to know that the characters in his work don’t know that. They don’t know that they’re in a story, in this predetermined narrative that is completely at his own mercy.
The injury that Ahab has sustained is so immense that he can only survive it, psychologically, by personifying the whole thing in the form of Moby Dick. Whatever twists of fate brought him to this point in his life, he will have his revenge in the only avenue that is open to him.
You know the old saying. When all you have is a whaling lance, all the evils of the world that have been wrought upon you look like a whale.
The final appeal that Ahab gives to Starbuck is to just not take it so seriously. The rest of the crew is won over, and it’s not really that big of a change from their original purpose anyway. They’re all keen to kill some whales, and they’re still going to do that, it’s just one little extra stipulation on top of it all.
And what is it? Reckon it. ’Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone?
It’s just one whale! They’ve both killed dozens of whales in their time, if not hundreds. No need to be such a spoilsport about it, Starbuck!
It’s kind of a wild about-face after getting all metaphysical. Ahab basically just asserted his right to strike back at the unknown forces of fate if they would offend him, and now he’s just like “c’mon, everyone else is on board.” Then we get the whole business of everyone drinking the grog and getting even more hyped up about killing Moby Dick. Starbuck is kind of stunned into silence, and is unable to voice more complaint, but is clearly yet unconvinced.
This chapter absolutely lays me out every time. It’s just incredibly well written, and the substance of Ahab’s argument is so completely… bizarre. This is now what you expect when you’re reading a 19th century novel about whalers, even one that’s been as weird and philosophical as this one has been.
Everything we’ve seen about Ahab up to this point makes a lot of sense, with this, though. All of that stuff about him being brooding, him being ominous, surrounded by a sort of cloud of portentous energy. Of course he is, he’s so concerned with fate. And not as a sort of abstract concept, but rather with the actual idea of some sort of reasoning entity that exists beyond our physical reality, who is personally angry with, and wants to have revenge upon.
Thus, all of his actions are loaded with significance. What he wants is to go through all the motions, as prescribed in tradition, for being a sort of mythical figure. Ahab is playing the part of someone who will defy fate, because that is his ultimate goal. I feel that Melville goes to great lengths to show that Ahab was not simply mentally ill, not out of his mind in any way. He is driven to an impossible conclusion by impossible circumstances, and we’ll get more into the details of that at a later time.
This chapter is a key part, along with an earlier reference to Ahab fixing his lance on “stranger things than whales”, in my own fascination with this book. It builds up, only on the very barest edges, a very fantastical world. The suggestion that something much bigger and deeper is happening here, which is only appropriate given the subject matter.
I am the kind of person that loves when stories suddenly becomes supernatural. When things are humming along like normal, and then there’s suddenly a ghost or something. Some sort of deeper layer to things going on, which isn’t so easy to explain away. Nothing angers me more, in a story, than when the opposite happens. It’s revealed that everything strange was just a dream, or a coincidence, or some simple technology.
There ought to be room for wonder in fiction. For exploration of ideas beyond this common, turnpike earth. Go big or go home, damnit! And while Moby-Dick; or, the Whale may not go as far in that particular direction as I’d like it to, you certainly can’t say it pulls any punches either.
Whew! Well, that was a post that’s about twice as long as usual. But honestly, what did you expect? This is an important one.
The next several chapters are incredibly short, focusing on the reactions of some of the characters from this scene. I’ll probably knock ’em out in the next couple days.
Until next time, shipmates!
2 thoughts on “Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck”
I’m not sure if I’ve taken the time to comment before, but I’ve read every post in this series, and I want you to know this is good work you’re doing and you should be proud of it. I always look forward to the next entry.
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Thanks Ben! That means a lot to me.