Chapter 41: Moby Dick

So, now that we know what Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, and the crew in general think of the events of The Quarter-Deck, who could possibly be left to weight in? Is there some important character who has been neglected?

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Oh yes, there is that novice whaleman, named himself after some biblical figure, obviously not his real name, what was it again? Isaiah? Ezekiel? Ishmael! That was it, let’s hear what good ol’ Ishmael has to say about all this.

SUMMARY: Ishmael describes how he was swept up in Ahab’s passion, and joined him willingly in his quest for vengeance. Then, he goes on to describe the reputation of Moby Dick as a particularly dangerous whale, and how whalers, given to superstition in general, have ascribed all sorts of supernatural qualities to it. Then, he describes the incident in which Ahab first encountered Moby Dick, and had his leg bitten off, and his subsequent descent into madness and ascent back into seeming sanity. Finally, he wonder how it came to be that Ahab was placed in a perfect position to see his vision realized, with a crew that would so eagerly follows him. Ultimately Ishmael forgives himself for being among them, and unable to resist the powerful social and emotional forces that moved him in lockstep with everyone around him.


Hm, not a fan, apparently. Seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting to get as much responsibility off of himself. “Oh you know all sailors are superstitious, and whalers doubly so, and most whalers don’t even fight sperm whales, and look the whale was really mean! It was peer pressure!”

Ah, poor Ishmael. I realized something, reading this chapter, that opened my eyes a bit about the last few chapters. I mentioned that ever since the Quarter-Deck, they were all written in the style of a stage play. I mean, Midnight, Forecastle is especially, but the previous few chapters also all contain stage directions and are mostly first-person soliloquys.

It seems that this is more of a format break than I even realized. We are not just breaking from the normal style of the novel, but from what the novel actually is, as a fictional artifact. The chapters with commentary from other characters do not have any of Old Ishmael’s usual stylistic influence. There are no big tangents ending in philosophical declarations all decked out in exclamation point! There is none of Ishmael’s point of view, it’s all more of a documentary style, as if we were genuinely getting into Ahab and Starbuck’s heads.

But that seemed strange, as theater is the most artificial-seeming of formats you could take. But… this book was written in the past, which as you know is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. Movies would not exist for some 50 years after this book was written. There was no standard for writing things that actually happened besides as a series of letters. If you want to describe something physically happening, in a way that isn’t full of artifice and added opinion, the best way would be stage directions.

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Simply reporting the things that happened and the words and thoughts of the characters involved is about as objective as you can get. It stands in great contrast to the avuncular character voice we get whenever Old Ishmael takes the reins. This device isn’t just here to have a bit of fun with the format, it is serving a purpose: showing that we are getting a sort of unvarnished truth, standing in contrast to the tale that Ishmael is spinning.

This seems especially relevant, given that we got all that deep insight into Ahab’s thoughts and motives in his own chapter, and here we get a bunch of wild guessing from Ishmael. He sees Ahab as basically just insane but good at faking it. Which is close to being the truth, but not quite there. He cannot access Ahab’s interiority, though it be recorded on a few thin pages away! Alas!

All the business here about the superstitions of whalemen are pretty fun. Moby Dick is thought to be immortal, thought to be capable of appearing in two places at the same time, traveling vast distances in only a few moments. It gives a bit of texture to the culture of the profession. After all, sperm whales really do go all over the world, and there are failed hunts all the time.

It’s hard to imagine, nowadays, that a man would aim to kill an animal and just completely fail to accomplish that goal. A whale can be hit with many harpoons, as Moby Dick has, and just swim away if it wants to. With all the power at the command of these massive beasts, if they were aware that they were being hunted, they would be impossible to kill.

This is really the thing that makes Moby Dick fearsome, the thing that strikes terror and hatred into the heart of Ahab, and many other whalers. The fact that it seems to be actively malicious, striking back against its hunters; not just evading them but actively luring them into combat and then destroying them, utterly.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Ahab, as Ishmael does, after this chapter. Even for all his mad desire and ambition, the inciting incident that we finally catch a glimpse of is incredibly horrific:

Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.

His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field.

All of Ahab’s boats were torn to bits, along with many of the crew. He floats there in the water, and the whale just looks at him. It’s not even trying to run away, as if it knows what it has done, that all its foes are now defeated.

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According to Ishmael, this was the key moment, not the loss of his leg, that drove Ahab to his mad quest for revenge. After this, we get the incident hinted at by Elijah back in Nantucket: Ahab laid as if dead for three days, raving in his mind, seemingly driven completely insane. But then… he got better.

And, when running into more sufferable latitudes, the ship, with mild stun’sails spread, floated across the tranquil tropics, and, to all appearances, the old man’s delirium seemed left behind him with the Cape Horn swells, and he came forth from his dark den into the blessed light and air; even then, when he bore that firm, collected front, however pale, and issued his calm orders once again; and his mates thanked God the direful madness was now gone;

Everyone is fooled by his front. Of course, Ishmael caught on to some of the darkness swirling around his mysterious captain, but didn’t take it seriously. He was a new hand at this line of work, after all, how was he to know what was normal for a captain of a whaling ship? And then, when everyone else fell into sympathy with the old man’s wishes, how could he ever hope to stand apart?


As with many things in this book, this chapter pokes at the theme of knowledge, and how to get at it.

If Ishmael cannot know what Ahab is thinking, both in the past and in the present, how could anyone know what is happening in the mind of that great monstrous whale? As with Ahab seeming grieved but placid and sane, we have no idea if Moby Dick is actually malicious or simply acting on some whim or instinct that is unknowable to us.

Even if we were all sperm whales, thinking sperm whale thoughts and swimming about in the ocean, we may not fully understand the actions and motives of Moby Dick, that really angry whale that hates the bits of wood that show up from time to time. There is an impenetrable wall that separates the human mind from the truth of reality. Knowledge, in a complete sense or even in a limited sense, is impossible, because deception and illusion are known to exist in lesser forms.

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On a daily basis, this doesn’t really mean much. You can get by without needing some sort of perfect, true knowledge of reality, it’s not necessary. For practical things, approximate knowledge is good enough. I know that tapping these keys will produce the results I want. I know what sensations I get, in what general way, and how to respond to them. But knowing the inner mechanisms of what is really, truly, going on… well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

It’s interesting the way that Melville builds up this theme particularly strongly in this chapter. First, we hear about superstitions and fears of sailors, in general. How many northern whalers won’t even consider fighting a sperm whale, because of their fearsome reputation. How the reputation of Moby Dick has grown in the telling, particularly because of the extremely loose and broad network of whale ships. A ship could go years without seeing another at sea, so rumors are slow to spread, and grow quickly in the telling.

Then, we go into specifics, with the wild things thought about Moby Dick, and their origins in real phenomena. Whales seem to die, but reappear alive. Whales can be reported  in multiple places because they are hard to identify. They can seemingly travel vast distances because the are fast, tireless swimmers, moving in ways that human ships cannot.

What we’re building up is the idea of mystery, the ridiculous number of unknown factors that go into this whole business of hunting whales. Then, we get our two specific mysteries: the mind of Ahab and the mind of Moby Dick. Ishmael can only guess at what is going on there. He can only report the rumors he’s heard and theories that he himself has crafted.


Alright, another chapter down! This was a really interesting one, opening up a lot of fun theoretical business. My background in epistemological philosophy is coming more in handy that I would’ve guessed!

Until next time, shipmates!

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