Moby-Dick By Herman Melville Summary and Analysis Chapter 36

Summary

A few days after the incident with his pipe, Ahab spends a restless day in his cabin or pacing the quarter-deck. Near the end of the day, he issues an unusual order: The entire crew, even the masthead watch, is to assemble before him. Ahab briefly discusses procedure for announcing the sighting of a whale and offers a Spanish ounce of gold to the first man to spot the White Whale. He enlists the crew's support in a mission to kill Moby Dick; only Starbuck objects. Ahab and the crew celebrate.

Analysis

In one of the most significant chapters in the novel, Melville employs a dramatic technique — complete with brief stage directions, dialogue, and rousing speech, as well as narrative intervention. This is one of several dramatized chapters in the novel. The method is especially effective here because it allows the reader to see how charismatic and forceful Ahab can be as a leader and speaker.

As the day wears on, it is clear to Stubb that something important is stirring in Ahab. The second mate tells Flask that "the chick that's in him [Ahab] pecks the shell." This is the time that Ahab chooses to announce his true intentions to the crew and attempt to persuade the men to join him in a singular effort to hunt down the White Whale. Like a speaker at a political rally, Ahab first unifies the group by asking a series of emotionally charged questions that call for unified responses: What do you do when you spot a whale? What do you do next? What tune do you pull to in pursuit? The men are increasingly excited, almost as if they are in the blood lust of a real hunt. Ahab then employs his prop, a Spanish gold ounce, offered to the man who first sees ("raises") the White Whale. He dramatically holds up the coin to the declining sun and nails it to the mainmast.

The harpooners are the first to recognize the whale's description — the white head, wrinkled brow, crooked jaw, three holes in the starboard fluke — as that of Moby Dick. Their enthusiastic confirmations, and the revelation that Moby Dick took off the captain's leg, lead Ahab into an emotional appeal to the crew to join him in chasing the whale "over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out." The men shout their enthusiastic approval. The only abstention is from Starbuck who wants to stick to the business of accumulating whale oil and thinks it "blasphemous" to seek revenge on a "dumb brute — that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!" Ahab responds that he would "strike the sun if it insulted me." This scene clarifies the primary difference between Starbuck and Ahab: Starbuck attributes no meaning to how and why things happen; Ahab interprets meaning in everything.

Scholars dispute whether Ahab considers Moby Dick to be a representative of evil or whether the captain's vanity is so great that he wants to take on the structure of nature, even God himself. Is the whale evil, or is the evil in Ahab? The captain seems half-mad as he rants about attacking the "inscrutable thing" behind the "mask," the force behind the façade that is the whale. To understand Ahab's obsession, we must try to understand what he really wants to kill. Is it the whale or a power he sees behind the whale? These are questions to consider as the novel progresses. A convincing argument can be made that Ahab wants to be God and is offended that he should have to bear the insult of any authority beyond himself. The "inscrutable thing" dares to limit Ahab's role in the world. Ahab thinks that he is filled with a superhuman power, an interior electricity that would kill mere mortals. As he offers wine to the three harpooners, ceremonially celebrating a commitment to a unified cause, the scene has the impact of a diabolical black mass. Ahab is a powerful man, charismatic, obsessed, even mad, and he has all but one of the crew under his control.

Glossary

perdition damnation, Hell.

inscrutable obscure, mysterious, enigmatic.

tacit unspoken.

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