Literature Study GuidesMoby DickChapters 37 40 Summary

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 37–40 | Summary

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Summary

Captain Ahab in Chapter 37 says that "all loveliness is anguish to me" and that he will do what he has decided to do even though his men, especially Starbuck, may think him mad. He is not mad, he says; rather, he is "madness maddened." He swears to "dismember my dismemberer." Starbuck in Chapter 38 is deeply disturbed by the reveling that is taking place in the wake of Ahab's announcement and by the prospect of serving under a madman like Ahab. Stubb's thoughts in Chapter 39 are scattered. He does seem pleased about the fact that Starbuck had a run-in with Ahab. He thinks a little of home as well, before Starbuck summons him.

Around midnight in Chapter 40, the crew are all "standing, lounging, leaning, and lying in various attitudes," singing together. Sailors from many different nations are represented in the crew, and they dance, talk, and argue. As the dancing winds down, the wind picks up, and soon they are coming into a storm. As the storm gets worse, the crew have to begin tying down the sails in order to weather it.

Analysis

Chapters 37–40 give glimpses into the events following Captain Ahab's big announcement. They depart from Ishmael's first-person narrative and are structured like sections of a play, including stage directions. First readers get a peek into what Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb are thinking, in their own words: Chapters 37–39 are each spoken in first person, first by Ahab, then by Starbuck, then by Stubb. Chapter 40 focuses on the crew and their revels.

Ahab's words paint a picture of a man with an absurdly grand sense of his own importance. He fancies that he is a king wearing an iron crown, and that he has greater power, will, and perception than ordinary men. Yet his importance and his mission—to "dismember my dismemberer"—are also exhausting and consuming: "time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy." Despite Ahab's clear madness (not just your average madness, as Starbuck may think, but "madness maddened"), this look into the inner workings of his mania encourages readers to see his humanity.

When Starbuck speaks, he reveals how trapped he feels by the situation—he's given his oath to obey a man who he now knows is a madman, and he has no choice but "to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity." He also expresses his distaste for the crew's enthusiasm for Ahab's quest.

The contrast between Ahab and Starbuck in these chapters sets the stage for later confrontations and tension between them.

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