How we cite our quotes:
"Who told thee that?" cried Ahab; then pausing, "Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye," he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; "Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!" Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave." (36.32)
Apart from the fact that Khan gets to quote some of these lines in Star Trek II, this is an important passage because it’s the first time that Captain Ahab admits that he’s on a wild quest for revenge against Moby Dick. We’re a little concerned that he’s willing to go, not just to the ends of the earth, but also to Hell itself – "perdition’s flames." If Ahab wants to pursue his white whale all the way to damnation, he might need to be careful what he wishes for.
"[B]ut what’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale? art not game for Moby Dick?"
"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market." (36.34-35)
Melville immediately sets up Starbuck as a rational counterpoint to Ahab. While Captain Ahab sees revenge as an end in itself, Starbuck is always going to be there to do a broader cost-benefit analysis. It’s immediately apparently to Starbuck – and to the reader – that the sacrifices Ahab is willing to make in order to achieve his revenge literally aren’t worth the price. The Pequod could make a lot more money just hunting whatever whales it finds and staying clear of the really dangerous ones.
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"Hark ye yet again – the little lower layer. 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. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. 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." (36.38-39)
Both parts of this dialogue contain some of the most important keys to unlocking the theme of revenge in Moby-Dick. Starbuck claim that trying to take revenge on a simple animal, which isn’t capable of hatred or cruelty, is not just stupid – it’s sinful. In response, Ahab claims that the entire world has an allegorical or neo-Platonic aspect: all things represent other things and everything happens for a purpose. Much of the tension in the novel relates to this fundamental difference in interpretation: Starbuck sees the natural world as simply there, doing its thing, and Ahab sees it as the tangible representation of "some unknown but still reasoning thing." At bottom, the issue is whether or not Moby Dick attacked Ahab with "malice aforethought," as those legal types say.