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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 36: THE QUARTER-DECK

Melville begins chapters 36 to 40 with stage directions, as if to emphasize the building drama. In this chapter, as Ahab gathers his men on the quarterdeck, his face looks like the horizon when a storm is developing. He paces, shouting at his men questions like "What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?"

Then he stomps toward the mainmast, a sixteen dollar Spanish doubloon in his hand. The doubloon, he promises as he nails it to the mast, will be paid to the first man who spies a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and crooked jaw.

Tashtego, the harpooner, asks if the whale is the one called Moby-Dick. Queequeg and Daggoo are familiar with the beast as well. "Was it not Moby-Dick that took off thy leg?" Starbuck asks the captain.

With a "terrific, loud, animal sob," Ahab answers that it was. He vows to chase the whale around Africa, South America, into the fires of hell, before he gives up. And the men will chase as well.

"Aye," shout the men. But the cautious Starbuck is not convinced. He'll gladly kill Moby-Dick if he sees him, but the Pequod is sailing to make a profit for its owners, not to satisfy Ahab's desire for revenge. That revenge seems all the more wasteful because Moby-Dick is a dumb brute who bit off Ahab's leg out of animal instinct.

Now comes one of the most famous speeches in Moby-Dick. Read it closely.

"Hark ye yet again," Ahab begins, then says:

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. 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.... He tasks me; he heaps
me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

Ahab reveals a number of things here, both about the book and about himself. Objects and actions are only masks; true meaning lies beyond them. But what is that meaning? Ahab seems to believe it can only be malicious. (Do you think Melville agrees?) Ahab compares himself to a prisoner trying to escape. The whale is either the source of evil or the agent of evil; in either case it must be battled. Don't tell Ahab he's being blasphemous towards God and his creations; Ahab considers himself God's equal.



NOTE:

Do you think Ahab is overstepping the proper bounds of human conduct? Should he battle Moby-Dick, the great force of nature, or should he accept the workings of God's universe and not seek revenge?

Starbuck is no match for Ahab's iron will nor for the excitement Ahab has stirred in the crew (excitement that grows after he gives the sailors a pewter flagon of liquor). With the crew on his side, Ahab orders Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask to cross their lances before him in a show of obedience. He orders the harpooners to present their barbed harpoons to him and, to continue what has become a blasphemous parody of a religious service, he baptizes the harpoons with liquor, shouting, "Death to Moby-Dick!"

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