MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 32-40]

Welcome to Part 7 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture we will discuss Chapters 32-40.

In Chapter 32, Ishmael develops of scientific classification system for whales. He defines a whale as “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” He divides whales into three “books” based on the size of the whales in question. The largest whales – such as the Sperm Whale, the Right Whale, and the Humped-Back Whale – comprise the Folio book. The medium-sized whales – such as the Grampus, Black Fish, and the Narwhale – comprise the Octavo book. And the smallest whales – such as the various species of porpoise – comprise the Duodecimo book. This chapter’s purpose is to provide contextual information about the whales that the crew will encounter in the latter parts of the novel.

In Chapter 33, Ishmael discusses the history of the whaling industry with respect to the Captain and crew. Originally the Specksnyder, who was the chief harpooneer, and the captain of the ship shared command. While the chief harpooneer no longer shares command with the captain, the harpooneers still enjoy the benefits of an officer’s rank on ship – such as sleeping in the aft of the ship and taking their meals in the Captain’s cabin. Though Captain Ahab holds absolute sway over the ship, Ishmael notes that no external thing distinguishes Ahab from the rest of the crew, but rather it is something within Ahab that marks him as the ship’s absolute leader. “All outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!”

In Chapter 34, Captain Ahab and his officers dine in his cabin. No one talks during dinner. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask even seem nervous about making too much noise while chewing their food. After Ahab and the officers finish their meals and leave the cabin, the table is cleared and set for the harpooneers. “In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it.” The difference between the officer dinner and the harpooneer dinner is the presence of authority. Ahab’s presence causes the other officers discomfort as they try to constrain their natural habits and behaviors. There is no hierarchical difference at the harpooneer dinner table; and therefore the diners behave as they wish.

In Chapter 35, Ishmael describes his first watch for whales on top of the mast. He notes that the view from the top of the ship induces a kind of hypnosis. “Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature.” The ocean conceals the mystery of life, and Ishmael feels united with this mystery for the few minutes when he is gazing intently into it.

In Chapter 36, Ahab summons the entire crew to the deck of the ship. Once everyone is assembled, he announces that the purpose of their whaling voyage is to hunt down and kill Moby Dick – the white whale who took Ahab’s leg. Starbuck protests that he came to hunt whales, and not to hunt his captain’s vengeance. But the rest of the crew heartily agree to pursue Moby Dick after Ahab offers a Golden Dubloon to the man who first spots the white whale. The crew then pledges their vows to hunt Moby Dick by drinking “fiery water” from the same goblet.

The most interesting dialogue in this chapter is the one between Starbuck and Ahab. Starbuck protests against Ahab’s mission to exact revenge against Moby Dick. He asserts that it is blasphemous to be enraged against an animal that possesses no reasoning faculty, but merely acts from blind instinct. Essentially, Starbuck accuses Ahab of being angry against God, who created the white whale and the white whale’s instincts – for the white whale has no free will like humans; and therefore the responsibility for the whale’s actions rests solely with its creator. Ahab does not deny Starbuck’s assertion that he is enraged at the metaphysical subject behind the behavior of the whale – the wizard behind the curtain, if you will. “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.”

In Chapter 37, Ahab is alone in his cabin, and he challenges the gods. He acknowledges that the prophecy that he would lose his leg to a white whale has been fulfilled, but he is determined to fulfill his own prophecy – which is that he will kill Moby Dick. “The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and—Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies—Take some one of your own size; don’t pommel me! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags! The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

In Chapter 38, Starbuck is alone by the mainmast. He worries that the voyage will end in tragedy, but hopes that God will intervene to save them. “Time and tide flow wide. The hated whale has the round watery world to swim in, as the small gold-fish has its glassy globe. His heaven-insulting purpose, God may wedge aside.”

In Chapter 39, Stubb is alone on deck. Like the other characters of the novel, Stubb believes that everything happens according to fate. In light of this fact, Stubb concludes that the best response is to laugh. “A laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always left—that unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestinated. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” Of the three soliloquies in the preceding chapters, Stubb’s acceptance of Fate is most admirable. While Ahab is grim and defiant, and Starbuck is desperate for divine intervention, Stubb chooses to be happy regardless of the circumstances.

In Chapter 40, the crew drinks, dances, and sings together. But the festivities are cut short by a storm. The storm reflects the change that has taken place on the ship. Ahab has announced his purpose and persuaded the crew to join him in his pursuit of Moby Dick. The levity and friendship of the preceding chapters has been replaced with dangers embodied by the storm and Moby Dick.

Don’t forget to subscribe and join us for Part 8 of this series on Moby Dick.

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