Chapter 38: Dusk

Let us now turn our attention to the recipient of Ahab’s fiery, blasphemous words, one Starbuck of Nantucket. How’s he holding up?

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Well, he left the scene fearing for the the soul of himself and everyone else on the ship, so I’m gonna guess “not well”. Alas, Starbuck is doomed to be a tragic figure, as we already know from Ishmael’s preemptive eulogy.

SUMMARY: Starbuck leans against the mainmast, regretting his inability to stand up to Ahab, and to be stuck on a ship with such a barbarous and unthinking crew. His only hope is that they will fail to ever find Moby Dick. The future is not yet written, he yet believes that there is hope to survive.


So yeah, not a good time for ol’ Starbuck.

I forgot to mention it last chapter, but the format is a little different again. We’re not getting these soliloquy narrated to us by Old Ishmael, they’re just straight-up first person. In this little section of the book, starting with the Quarter-Deck, it’s becoming more and more like a stage play. That chapter opened with stage directions, as does this one. Melville is building up to something.

This also throws an interesting wrench into my interpretation of this as a fictional text. Is Ishmael just guessing at the content of these monologues? Or are these chapters a break from the format in more ways than one, are they inserted by some sort of secondary author, to fill in the gaps that Ishmael couldn’t. The former seems more likely, as the Shakespearean nature of them adds to the sense of artificiality. These are added to fill in the gaps, to make the narrative work, from a place of making sense of the events of this voyage.

As a reader, though, we can only take them as the gospel truth. There are no other sources for the voyage of the Pequod, nobody alive to contradict Ishmael. His own mythologizing is at the heart of the book, anyway.

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But, let’s get back to poor old Starbuck. He feels completely outmatched by Ahab, can’t imagine ever being able to stand up to him.

My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it.

He is utterly defeated. Starbuck hasn’t been won over, but he has been completely crushed by the sheer weight of Ahab’s ambition, and is resigned to his fate, much his captain is. The only possible hope comes in the form of fate, or God as he calls it, protecting both the ship and the whale by keeping them apart. If they simply fail to find Moby Dick, all will be well.

After all, the oceans are pretty big, even compared to the mighty leviathans that are the prey of the Pequod. Finding any whale at all is a stroke of luck, finding a particular one is practically divine providence.

We get here another echo of Ahab’s democratic interpretation of the universe, to go along with Ishmael’s:

Who’s over him, he cries;—aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office,—to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity!

It’s all very well for Ahab to declare equality when it comes to forces greater or more mysterious than himself, he’s happy to demand the obedience of those he sees as his inferiors! Where is the right of Starbuck to have his objection heard? Where is the right of Stubb to have a fair hearing on his noise complaint?

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At the end, we see what has truly conquered mighty Starbuck: sympathy. As a whaler himself, he has seen many a friend die in pursuit of these dumb brutes, and as a member of an old whaling family, has lost all his male relatives to it as well. How could he not be touched by Ahab’s plight? By his need for some outlet for his grief and pain, on the same object that Starbuck himself would take his vengeance?

For all his rigid Quakerish principles, Starbuck, too, has his human side. Even as his rational mind fights against it, he knows that it is his duty to obey his captain, and his secret pleasure to pierce that same mask alongside him.

Ah, but perhaps this is a reach too far. The pity may simply be for an old, injured man, who has clearly, to Starbuck, gone mad. It may be a bridge too far to say that he also secretly wants to stick it to whales, in general. After all, that’s Flask’s Thing, according to his introduction.

After all, Starbuck sees himself as the only sane man left on the boat, and abdicates all responsibility for altering their course, at least at this particular moment. In the latter half of this very short chapter, he calls the rest of the crew heathens, and wonders at their ability to enjoy themselves on this made quest for vengeance.

Starbuck has absolutely no ability to chill, whatsoever. His perfect opposite on this ship is not Ahab, who he has more similarities with than he would ever know, but Stubb, who just laughs along with everything, no matter how dire.

Hark! the infernal orgies! that revelry is forward! mark the unfaltering silence aft! Methinks it pictures life.

Yes, the thread running through these chapters, in the aftermath of Ahab’s bold declaration is the crew having a party. Perhaps, we’ll get to see a bit of it, a few pages further on. Perhaps it will take the form of a scene from a stage play! Anything could happen.

Oh, life! ’tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee! but ’tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim, phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!

Starbuck has experienced true fear for the first time, something he is unable to manage with the skills that he has used throughout his life. Ahab has brought arguments to him that he cannot fight, has appealed to him on a direct level that cannot be countered with argument at all.

Think about it: all of the danger that Starbuck has faced before has been in the form of either the chaos of the natural ocean, or else a gigantic animal flailing in blind terror. It’s not as though he’s been in an army fighting his fellow man, or even facing him in a courthouse or a schoolroom.

If you are killed by a whale or a wave, there is no personal fault. Nobody will call you a coward for dying if smote by the tail of a beast ten thousand times stronger than you, no more than you would call an ant that you squashed a coward. It does not try one’s internal fortitude, except on the basic level of facing down death in the first place.

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Now, Starbuck must come face to face with a social peril. Ahab has outmaneuvered him, outmatched him, and now cannot be stopped. Nothing in his life has prepared him for this moment, where his own lack of will could spell his doom, as well as the doom of the whole ship. As an emotionally repressed New England protestant, he cannot deal with this kind of direct conflict.

That’s why he says he must rely on his own soft, human element, which is so underdeveloped. The iron courage of a harpooneer is of no use here, not when it is being twisted to a profane end.


Just a little sidebar on the old anti-capitalist interpretation, isn’t it interesting that this ship which is owned and officered by devout Christians and specifically Quakers is being turned to such a blasphemous purpose, so easily? Remember back, Bildad made a big deal about making sure that Queequeg was baptized. But, it turns out all the harpooneers are heathens, the captains seeks to defy God (or whatever) directly, and the crew don’t care much either way.

The original intentions of those who launched this effort have no ability to control what is actually done with the resources they’ve provided. If the voyage returns with a good amount of oil, who cares if they do a little blasphemous vengeance on the side? It’s all the cost of doing business, these are the kinds of concessions you have to make to attract the best talent.


Goodness, I ended up writing quite a bit on this tiny little chapter! Well, I’m still building up these ideas and interpretations as I go. These short chapters are a bit of a calm pool, where I can catch my breath and collect my thoughts, before moving on to the rapids of some more meaty bits.

Next up is Stubb! How is he getting on, in the wake of Ahab’s bit revelation? I think you can probably guess.

Until next time, shipmates!

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