Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck”
Ahab paces up and down the ship in deep thought. His pegleg can be heard stumping along on deck or in his cabin. Finally, he commands the crew to assemble and tells them there is an ounce of Spanish gold for the man who sees the great white whale with a crooked jaw. He has the gold nailed to the mast as a prize. The harpooners ask him if he means, Moby Dick, for they all know him. He says yes, Moby Dick took off his leg.
He reveals his plan to hunt for Moby Dick through all the oceans till he is killed. The crew cheers and agrees, but Starbuck is worried. He tells Ahab it is merely a plan of vengeance, and they came to make money. Ahab gives one of his brilliant philosophical speeches on why he must fight the whale, and Starbuck yields to his will but knows it is a tragic mistake. He hears mysterious laughter from the hold. Ahab passes around wine to the crew to bind the men in this common purpose, and the harpooners cross their lances as an oath.
Chapter 37, “Sunset”
Ahab in his cabin sees the beauty of the sun setting on the ocean and laments he cannot enjoy beauty. He is happy that the crew, except for Starbuck, are ready to follow him. He speaks aloud to the whale, vowing to destroy him.
Analysis Chapters 36 and 37
Ahab talking to the men has the aspect of a storm brewing, says Ishmael. Ahab knows how to work the men up, appealing to their common sailor’s values: “What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?” (36. 158)
Ahab is a mesmerizing showman, a demagogue, and in his very rhetoric sounds the authority that people mistake for truth: “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale . . . shall have this gold ounce, my boys!”
Starbuck alone keeps his head in the group hysteria, reminding the captain the purpose of their voyage is to hunt all whales for profit, and that “vengeance on a dumb brute” is “madness” (36. 161).
Ahab’s philosophical response is mad in its defiance of God, reminding us of Jonah: “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (36. 161). Ahab sees Moby Dick as “a pasteboard mask” hiding the malice of the universe, and he must “strike through the mask” (36.161) to destroy the evil before it gets him.
The madness of Ahab is very like Satan’s in Milton’s Paradise Lost, for Satan felt an injury from God that had to be avenged. This is sin and madness to create a separation from God and to fight the source of one’s being, declaring as Ahab and Satan both do, that they are sovereign, with no one “over” them.
Starbuck becomes a tragic partner with Ahab, symbolizing Ahab’s remnant of sanity, witnessing and watching, but unable to stop the unfolding drama. Thus, Starbuck’s very name is ironic, for he cannot buck fate, once he is paired with Ahab.
Ahab’s soliloquies in his cabin are also reminiscent of Milton’s Satan as he watches the beauties of Eden that he cannot share: “all loveliness is anguish to me . . . damned in the midst of Paradise!” (37. 165)
Ahab admits he is a demoniac and that he is able to control the men because “my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve” (37. 165).