Summary and Analysis
As the typhoon continues, Ahab holds his course. Representative of the crew, Stubb sees things the captain's way. A few hours after midnight, the storm abates; following orders to inform Ahab of any change, Starbuck heads for the captain's cabin where Ahab is asleep. Starbuck sees an opportunity to shoot his commander and end the madness, but he cannot. Next morning, Ahab finds the storm has passed, but the ship's compass has gone awry. He makes a new one, proudly indicating his obsessive dominance.
In some of these chapters, Melville returns to a dramatic format and presents scenes with stage directions, dialogue, soliloquy, and comic relief. (A short, frivolous speech by Tashtego calls for more rum and less thunder.) The scenes allow the story to progress with only significant snippets of action instead of detailing the progress of the storm and the crew's reaction throughout the night. We might think of the storm as representative of the turmoil in Ahab's soul or the troubled resolution of purpose as the Pequod goes through the final steps required to bring everyone together, working toward a single goal of hunting Moby Dick.
Ahab and Starbuck are still in conflict when the first mate pleads with Ahab, in Chapter 120, to bring down the main topsail and give in to the force of the typhoon. Ahab adamantly refuses. He seems to see himself in a mortal struggle with nature or even God and is not about to relent: "Strike nothing; lash it . . . . By masts and keels! he takes me for the hunchbacked skipper of some coasting smack." Representative of much of the crew, Stubb accedes to Ahab's will and follows the captain's orders no matter how dangerous they may seem.
When the storm lets up after midnight (Chapter 123), Ahab is asleep in his cabin. Now Starbuck must face his moment of truth. He is in a moral dilemma. In a soliloquy with stage directions implied by the speech, Starbuck considers using a loaded musket, which Ahab once pointed at Starbuck, to kill the captain. A touch on the musket's trigger could end the madness and allow the first mate to see his wife, Mary, and his son again. Such an act would end one life; but if he takes no action, he realizes that he and the crew may all be dead within a week. The first mate seems to be "wrestling with an angel." Ultimately, he cannot kill his captain. For good or ill, it is beyond Starbuck's moral capacity. Attempting to arrest Ahab is impractical under the circumstances. Starbuck returns to the deck without disturbing the ship's commander. Thus, even he acquiesces.
helm the wheel by which a ship is steered.
smack a small sailboat, usually rigged as a sloop with only mainsail and jib.
lucifers lucifer, an early type of friction match.
shuttlecock a rounded, feathered piece of cork used as the "bird" in badminton.
crucible a container that can resist great heat, used for melting ore; a test or trial.
abashed embarrassed, self-conscious.