"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.
Chapter 41: Moby Dick
I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge. (41.1)
It’s interesting that Ishmael specifically tells us that he’s totally down with Ahab’s crazy revenge quest. It’s also interesting that he only tells us this after the chapter in which the crew swears an oath; did he forget to mention he was there while he was telling the story, or what?
Ishmael’s role as narrator and his situation as a character in the novel seem to be coming into conflict, especially because the reader probably doesn’t support Ahab as much as Ishmael claims to do. Thus, revenge divides Ishmael from the reader. From this point forward, the narrator will seem less and less like Ishmael and more and more like Melville.
Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals – morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. (41.23)
Despite the horrific, blasphemous nature of Ahab’s desire for revenge, Fate seems to have stepped in to make it possible. The composition of the crew, the temperaments of the mates—it’s all coming together for one purpose. Note the word "monomaniac" here. Melville uses this term frequently to describe Ahab’s attitude. Ahab’s not simply crazy, he’s crazy with an intense focus on a single thing, and he seems to be able to transfer that focus to the crew.
Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever. (94.4)
For Ishmael, it’s possible to let the revenge quest fade away as he’s caught up in the almost sacred act of squeezing globules of solidified sperm oil. We’re not sure we could have an epiphany up to our elbows in whale grease, but hey, each to his own. Ahab, unfortunately, can’t seem to access this experience of release and purification; no comfort is possible for him. It makes us wonder what he’d do if he actually did achieve his revenge. Would he be able to relax then, or what?
Chapter 100: Leg and Arm • The Pequod, of Nantucket, meets the Samuel Enderby, of London
"No, thank ye, Bunger," said the English captain, "he’s welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?" – glancing at the ivory leg. (100.36)
Even though Captain Boomer (the "English captain") is only in Moby-Dick for one chapter, he’s a crucial foil to Captain Ahab. Like Ahab, Boomer has lost a limb to the White Whale, but unlike Ahab, he’s able to accept this and move on with his life without getting completely obsessed. We start to realize how bizarre Ahab’s desire to take revenge on Moby Dick really is.
Chapter 113: The Forge
Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.
"No, no – no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.
"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood. (113.14-26)
Forging a harpoon in human blood in a demonic parody of the baptismal ceremony, Ahab proclaims in fancy pseudo-church Latin, "I baptize you, not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the Devil!"
Finally, he’s directly admitted (okay, saying it in Latin isn’t all that direct) that throwing away every other aspect of his life and focusing on revenge is sacrilegious. It might seem weird that he wants to use human blood to create the harpoon that will strike Moby Dick, but, if you think about it, any tool used for hunting the White Whale seems to get covered in human blood sooner or later!
Chapter 135: The Chase – Third Day
"Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!" (135.58)
Some of these lines also get quoted in Star Trek II! Ahab’s declaration that he’s going to keep battling the whale with all his strength, even after he knows he’s doomed, has the same significance in both Star Trek and in Moby-Dick.
Khan goes after Kirk for the same reason Ahab goes after the White Whale: because he hates him, not because it’s a glorious quest or even because he wants to win. Khan and Ahab both do want to win, of course, but nourishing their own revenge is more important than mere victory.
From the ship’s bows, nearly all the seamen now hung inactive; hammers, bits of plank, lances, and harpoons, mechanically retained in their hands, just as they had darted from their various employments; all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. (135.55)
In the final battle scenes of the novel, Moby Dick does seem like a consciously malignant creature. The narrator (maybe Ishmael, maybe not) describes the whale as having "[r]etribution, swift vengeance, [and] eternal malice" in his face.
As we look into his eyes, we start to wonder if Ahab might have been on to something. Maybe the White Wale is malicious; maybe the seemingly unconscious behavior of the natural world does hint at something more conscious and sinister behind God’s creatures. (Wait... wouldn’t that be God?) Then again, the narrator and the sailors could be projecting their own malice onto the whale.