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  • Melville Beyond Culture
  • Denis Donoghue (bio)

In chapter 132 of Moby-Dick Ahab and Starbuck are on the Pequod’s deck. The weather is mild, “a clear steel-blue day.” Ahab, somewhat implausibly, starts thinking of his wife and child, the good days past in Nantucket. Starbuck seizes the occasion to urge Ahab to turn back, to give up chasing “‘that hated fish.’” Ahab hardly listens: “like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.” He then muses with himself about his actions, and where the responsibility for them lies: “‘Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?’” Within a few moments, not surprisingly, he has assigned responsibility to God, whom he sometimes calls Fate: “‘But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.’” By the time Ahab has assured himself of that conclusion, Starbuck has gone. “But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.”

Two chapters later, on the second day of the chase, Starbuck tries again:

“Great God! But for one single instant show thyself,” cried Starbuck; “never, never wilt thou capture him, old man—In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone—all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:— what more wouldst thou have?—Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,—Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!” [End Page 351]

Ahab’s answer could not be simpler: the plural Fates are the cause. He then distinguishes between his broken body and his soul, intact, that runs on a hundred legs. He says to Starbuck:

“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou underling! That thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ’Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet.”

On the third day of the chase Starbuck makes another effort: “‘Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble heart—go not—go not!—see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!’”; but Ahab brushes him aside, “‘Lower away!’—cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him, ‘Stand by the crew!’” Later the same day Starbuck calls to his master, “‘Oh! Ahab . . . not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!’”

The last we see of Starbuck is when he stands with Stubb on the bowsprit as the whale makes its final catastrophic attack: “‘Is this the end of all my bursting prayers? All my life-long fidelities? Oh, Ahab, Ahab, lo, thy work . . . My God, stand by me now!’”

I have recited these episodes in Moby-Dick because they enact the fundamental conflict of the novel in its personal and social terms. Ahab and the White Whale provide the occasion of the conflict in almost metaphysical terms. Starbuck...


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pp. 351-366
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