Chapter 46: Surmises

Now that we are properly grounded in the fictional reality of this book, we can get to the business at hand: psychoanalyzing Ahab!

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Haha no not really, psychoanalysis wouldn’t be invented for like 70 years after this book was written. But we are getting more insight into his internal processes. Or, at any rate, some educated guesses about it.

SUMMARY: Ishmael makes some guesses about what is running through Ahab’s mind, in the aftermath of his revelation of his quest for vengeance. He has to keep the crew in line, knowing that Starbuck is not completely won over, and sailors are not known for being particularly reliable. Ahab knows he is technically in violation of the law, and could be rightly removed from duty for usurpation of the ship’s original mission. Ultimately, he decides that they should continue on with their regular business of hunting whales, in addition to his particular desire to kill a particular whale. So, he makes a point of ordering the lookouts to keep watch for ANY whale-like activity, down to the smallest porpoise.


This is an interesting chapter, for many reasons. We are firmly back in Old Ishmael’s perspective, looking back over the events of this fateful voyage, trying to make sense of things. In particular, this chapter is focused on a mystery, though it isn’t really presented as such directly: Why did Ahab continue the hunt for whales that weren’t his sworn foe, Moby Dick?

After all, any time and effort wasted on other whales was only going to make it harder when the true battle was met, in the end. Why on earth would Ahab want to risk the lives of skilled harpooneers and crew in battle with a common sperm whale, when he knew the object of his utmost hatred was still out there? Surely, if he was so obsessed with his vengeance as he seemed, he must have realized how counterproductive this was.

Well, there are few simple reasons, which Ishmael throws out right away. Maybe his intense hatred of Moby Dick had been extended to whales in general. Or, perhaps he reasoned that every dead whale was one less in the ocean that wasn’t Moby Dick, so with enough work culling the numbers he must eventually have his revenge. Or it could be that it was simply inertia, he was so used to hunting whales for so many years that this was business as usual. Not even worthy of notice, it’s just what they do on a whaling ship!

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All of these are too easy, though. Ahab is too obsessed, too deep in his monomania to put so little thought into such a big part of the plan. It all rests on him to keep this quest going, he’s not going to leave such an important aspect of it up to some weak reasoning like that! Or, at least, those couldn’t be the only reasons, even all together.

From here, Ishmael goes off and develops a sort of theory about what Ahab is up to, in his diseased mind. Basically, it’s that this is a management strategy. In order to keep the crew from getting restless, from reconsidering the idea of chasing after the terrible White Whale on behalf of their captain, he has to give them something else to think about and do.

The officers are either checked out (Stubb and Flask), or actively trying to resist him (Starbuck). The crew were won over… for one night. Who knows what tomorrow could bring? Or next week? Or next year? Ahab played his hand way too early, they still have a lot of sailing to do before they’re anywhere close to that legendary monster which they all vowed to kill. Sailors are not known for being especially reliable or consistent; mutiny is a thing that happens, at this time and in this profession, on a pretty regular basis.

So, the plan is to just continue on with business as usual. To project an air of normalcy, and hope to persuade everyone that this is just a normal whaling voyage, after all. Not only will the hunting of whales provide distraction to everyone on the crew, but it will also, in a sense, bribe them. Remember, whalers are paid by a share of the profits, so with every ounce of oil they bring in, their paycheck at the end of the voyage grows. As long as they keep doing what they’re supposed to be doing, there’s no reason for them to get restless, no reason for them to question their captain.

For even the high lifted and chivalric Crusaders of old times were not content to traverse two thousand miles of land to fight for their holy sepulchre, without committing burglaries, picking pockets, and gaining other pious perquisites by the way.

The motivations of the crew are predictable, and can be catered to. Heck, Ahab already played on their sympathy with his big dramatic speech, after which he plied them with booze before getting them to swear their oath of vengeance. Clearly, Ishmael is working from this evidence with his theory. It is known that Ahab is capable and willing to manipulate the crew to his ends, and the continuation of regular whaling is just another piece of that puzzle.

For all these reasons then, and others perhaps too analytic to be verbally developed here, Ahab plainly saw that he must still in a good degree continue true to the natural, nominal purpose of the Pequod’s voyage; observe all customary usages; and not only that, but force himself to evince all his well known passionate interest in the general pursuit of his profession.

As we see in the quote above, Ishmael ultimately throws up his hands and says “yeah I don’t know, there are probably other reasons too,” which is kind of hilarious. Pulling back the veil here just a little bit more, showing us Old Ishmael laboring over this tome, trying to think back on the events and analyze the actions of his captain.

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Yes, all of this really strengthens my own theory, which I mentioned a while back, that the chapters where we actually do get insight directly into Ahab’s mind are not part of the fictional work that Ishmael is writing. They are, rather, something created by Melville to give us that direct insight, not any special knowledge that Old Ishmael has, because there’s no way he possibly could!

In a modern book, this would probably be delineated more clearly. Here, we only get the clue of the stage directions, showing us that what we’re seeing is a more objective, unvarnished truth, rather than the remembrances of a lowly first-time whaler. Perhaps the chapter numbering would be different, or they would be marked apart in some other way. But let’s give Melville a break here, this is a literary technique wildly ahead of it’s time! Blending the traditional “realistic” novel style with these inserts that portray a vision of reality outside of the scope of any particular fictional archival material.

Ah, it makes me wish that we’d gotten more direct information about Old Ishmael, sitting at some desk writing this, referring to old notes he’s taken over the years. But I guess there’s enough there, with his asides about stories he’s heard from Nantucketers and books he’s read. It paints the picture clearly enough, and it will become all the more clear as the book goes on, and we hurtle ever towards the ultimate tragedy that inspires the writing of it.


This was an interesting little chapter. This read of the book has been so fun, really looking closely and picking out all the little clues and subtle shifts in perspective.

Very soon, I promise, we’ll be getting some of that good, good whaling action. But first, we gotta learn about… weaving? I guess?

Until next time, shipmates!

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