by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Man and the Natural World Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
Still New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?
Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea. (6.5-6)
Moby-Dick is all about the way that men redistribute the riches of the natural world to suit themselves. In order to make the barren landscape of New Bedford habitable and comfortable, whalemen go out and slaughter the giants of the sea. It’s important to notice that the whalemen, and men in general, aren’t able to create new wealth out of nothing. All they can do is take nature’s bounty from one place and harvest it in order to transform life somewhere else.
Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. (26.3)
Melville shows us a variety of ways that men situate themselves in relation to the natural world by describing the way that each of the mates on the Pequod thinks about whaling. Starbuck, the first mate and moral touchstone of the crew, considers whaling something that you do in order to make a living. He’s brave when he needs to be to get his work done, but he doesn’t cherish any special vendetta against the whales. He doesn’t take pleasure in killing, but he also doesn’t make any fuss about killing when he needs to. Whaling is "just a job" for Starbuck. "Moderate" is the word we’re looking for here to describe his attitude.
Good-humored, easy, and careless, he [Stubb] presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box. When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair. (27.1)
Unlike Starbuck, who sees whaling as just a job to get done, Stubb responds to the dangers of whaling by behaving with a bizarre level of calm and self-assurance at all times. Even when it looks like he might die at any moment – especially then! – Stubb is humming little tunes and chilling out, as if he were slouched on the couch hanging out at home. This is partly because he’s used to the dangers that the natural world presents, but it’s also because he has to act brave to cover up his deep fears. (We’re not imagining that – he admits it later to Starbuck.)