Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck

  • A short time after the pipe-throwing incident (Chapter 30), Ahab comes onto the deck one morning after breakfast and starts pacing.
  • Even the planks that don’t have special holes for his bone leg have dents in them from all his pacing, and the dents seem especially deep today.
  • Then Ahab shuts himself up in his cabin and paces some more.
  • Eventually he comes out and orders Starbuck to send everyone aft. The whole ship’s crew, even the lookouts, gather together.
  • Ahab keeps pacing. The crew start to wonder if they’re just there to watch him pace.
  • Ahab suddenly asks everyone basic questions about whaling, and they answer that when you see a whale you call out, lower the boats, and go after him, and your motto is "a dead whale or a stove [wrecked] boat" (36.16).
  • Ahab pulls out a gold Spanish doubloon, shows it to everyone, and announces that whichever lookout finds "a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw" that also has "three holes punctured in his starboard fluke" will get the doubloon (36.21).
  • Symbolism Alert: Ahab nails the doubloon to the mast.
  • The harpooneers, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, each react strangely to Ahab’s description of the white whale. Tashtego says it must be the whale some people call Moby Dick. At last! The title character gets mentioned!
  • Each of the harpooneers has seen Moby Dick, and they each know a little about him—how his spout looks, how he moves his tail, and how many different harpoons he has in him already.
  • Starbuck has also heard of Moby Dick—and he’s heard that Moby Dick is the whale that took off Ahab’s leg.
  • Ahab admits this and, getting really worked up, announces that he’s going to chase the whale everywhere, even to hell, in order to get revenge on it.
  • Everyone cheers and Ahab orders drinks for everyone, but Starbuck spoils the party by objecting. He says he came on the voyage to hunt whales and make money, not to get revenge for Captain Ahab. He’ll hunt Moby Dick if they happen to come across him, but he’s not going on some weird quest.
  • Ahab offers to pay Starbuck out of his own pocket to hunt the whale. Starbuck still objects and says that it’s blasphemous to be angry at a dumb animal.
  • Ahab argues that all things in the world are like "pasteboard masks" and that there’s some conscious thing behind them all.
  • In striking at the whale he is going to "strike through the mask" at whatever it was that destroyed his leg, and it doesn’t matter to him whether the whale was the thing itself or just the mask (36.39).
  • Ahab realizes that he’s disturbing Starbuck and starts to speak more calmly. He argues that Starbuck is here to hunt whales anyway, so why not this one? After all, everyone else in the crew is happy to hunt Moby Dick.
  • For some reason, Starbuck gives in to Ahab. (See Chapter 26, which foreshadows this weakness in Starbuck’s courage.)
  • For a moment, there are sinister omens everywhere: Starbuck prays, the wind dies down, there’s a strange laugh from below, and so on. Then it all passes away.
  • Ahab takes a pewter mug full of grog and arranges the harpooneers in a line standing across from him and holding their harpoons; the mates stand beside him holding their lances. The crew stands around them all in a circle.
  • Ahab sends the mug around to the crew for everyone to drink; they refill the cup each time it gets empty.
  • Next, Ahab makes the mates cross their lances in front of him, and he grasps them where they cross. Then he suddenly pulls at them in a strange way. Stubb and Flask look away and Starbuck looks down.
  • Ahab says that it’s probably for the best that the three mates failed to absorb his electric anger, because then he might have lost it himself.
  • Now Ahab orders the harpooneers to cut the ropes that hold the iron heads of their harpoons to the handles. Each harpooneer hands the head of his harpoon to the mate that he works with. The mates, as cupbearers, turn the heads over and use the socket ends as cups, which Ahab fills with grog. Then they give these cups back to the harpooneers, who drink "Death to Moby Dick!" (36.49)
  • Everyone has one more drink, and they disperse.
  • Starbuck turns pale and shivers.

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