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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 41: MOBY-DICK

Now, at last, you're given a full introduction to the creature that gives the book its name. Ishmael uses all his skills as a researcher to uncover facts about Ahab's great enemy. This chapter and the next are very important sections of the novel.

NOTE: HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO MOBY-DICK

The whale, Moby-Dick, has at least some basis in fact. Newspapers and magazines of Melville's day thrilled readers with accounts of ferocious whales battling whaling ships. One of the most famous was an enormous sperm whale Mocha Dick, named for Mocha Island, the Pacific island near where his first attack took place. One expert credits Mocha Dick with as many as 30 deaths. The whale's legend grew over the years; he became, among other things, white as wool. And so with only a slight change of name-and with the addition of an enormous amount of philosophical importance-he became a major character in Melville's novel.



Not all whalers know of Moby-Dick, Ishmael says, and not all consider him particularly ferocious. Still, as the number of mishaps credited to him has increased, he has taken on mythic proportions and acquired supernatural traits. Some mariners say he is ubiquitous, able to appear in two places at one time; some say he is immortal; many believe he possesses an enormous but evil intelligence. No sinister killer could have removed Captain Ahab's leg with greater skill.

Ahab has come to believe all the legends about Moby-Dick, blaming the whale not only for his lost leg but for all the evils that afflict him, for all the evils that afflict mankind. Ahab's is a strange madness, Ishmael says, because it hasn't destroyed Ahab's own genuine brilliance. If you could probe deeper into his mind (which is compared to Roman ruins) you would see that he knows he is mad and that he does his best to disguise that fact, having others attribute his moods to physical pain rather than something deeper. Peleg and Bildad back in Nantucket will never know the real goal of this voyage. They want profit; he wants revenge.

And who can stop Ahab? It seems as if Fate has given him a crew perfectly suited to his purposes. Starbuck is virtuous but somehow weak; Stubb is laughingly indifferent; Flask is mediocre. Even Ishmael has admitted taking Ahab's oath with the rest of the crew. Ahab towers over them all. He has made his hate their hate.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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