Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapter 36 | Summary

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Summary

One morning after breakfast, Captain Ahab paces, lost in thought. The rest of the day, he shuts himself in his cabin at intervals, pacing whenever he is on deck. Near the end of the day, he calls for the entire ship's company to be assembled. He takes a Spanish gold piece and tells the men that whoever raises the White Whale will have it. Then the gold is nailed to the mast. The harpooners recognize this "White Whale" as "Moby Dick," and Ahab is glad to hear that they already know of him. Starbuck asks if it wasn't Moby Dick who took off Ahab's leg, and Ahab confirms this to be true. Starbuck doesn't like the idea of hunting for vengeance—he wants to hunt whales, not a particular whale. Ahab has the men drink grog (rum mixed with water) in a ritualistic way, and has them swear, "Death to Moby Dick!"

Analysis

This chapter is a turning point in the novel, as Captain Ahab's true mission is finally revealed to the crew. Although he has seemed moody and intense, the crew has not known the source of his grim mood until this moment. Ahab describes the hunt for Moby Dick as a vendetta against the whale, but he also presents the mission as if he has been personally insulted by God. He goes on to describe himself as a "prisoner" who must "reach outside the wall" of his limited perceptions. For Ahab, Moby Dick is the "wall" that is blocking his understanding of God's grander plan. Ahab's description of himself as "prisoner" of his limited understanding calls to mind Plato's Allegory of the Cave, in which the prisoners inside the cave must strive to break free of their chains in order to experience the light of Truth.

Now that all is revealed, the men react in different ways. Starbuck is shocked and disturbed by the idea that the crew would prioritize the killing of one particular whale for vengeance over the general mission to kill whales for profit. He also considers Ahab's personal vendetta against one whale—an animal, after all—to be mad. The harpooners and other crew members seem taken up in the passion of such a hunt, and the idea of winning the gold coin is an extra incentive that creates a frenzy of excitement among the men.

Ahab's ritual, in which he has the men drink grog out of the sockets of the harpoons while swearing to hunt and kill Moby Dick, calls to mind the drinking of wine from a chalice during the Christian sacrament of Eucharist (communion). It makes the oath-taking seem more like taking religious vows than a simple act of obedience to the captain.

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