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Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Moby-Dick, what is Ishmael's impression of Captain Ahab after his first glimpse of the captain?

When Ishmael first sees Captain Ahab standing on the deck of the ship, he notices that the captain has no physical indication that he is ill. He describes Ahab as a man who looks as if he has been burned but not consumed by the fire; who is like a bronze statue of Perseus, "shaped in an unalterable mould." He notices Ahab's scar—a "livid brand"—and the "barbaric white leg." Overall, Ahab's appearance to Ishmael is quite dramatic. But it is Ahab's posture and expression that affect Ishmael the most. He notes that Ahab faces forward and holds himself very straight, with an "infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness." While the crew go about their business uncertainly around him, he remains fixed. Ishmael uses the language of religion and royalty to describe the captain: "moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe." With this description, Ishmael endows Ahab with godhood, kingship, and infinite determination.

In Moby-Dick, why are the mates described as "little children" when they are at dinner at the captain's table?

The image of Captain Ahab at dinner with his mates is strangely similar to an uncomfortable and silent family dinner in an authoritarian household, and referring to the mates as "children" supports that interpretation of the image. Ahab is the strict father, and the mates are his children. Every action serves to reinforce this hierarchy. Dinner is announced first to Ahab, then Ahab serves the mates in turn according to rank, with "poor little Flask" representing the youngest child—"the little boy of this weary family party." In addition, the absolute silence at the table reflects the discomfort the mates have with Ahab, whom they do not yet know well.

In Moby-Dick, what does standing the masthead have in common with being in a pulpit or bed, and why is this significant?

Ishmael describes being in the masthead as similar to being in a bed or pulpit, among other places, which have a "comfortable localness of feeling." He explains that they are "small and snug" places where people can "temporarily isolate themselves." The tension between being isolated and being part of a community is an important one in Moby-Dick. Ishmael feels isolated at the beginning of the novel, as does Queequeg. Their isolation is not seen as a good thing—they are lonely. When they form a friendship and join the Pequod, they find themselves part of a community. However, even with friends and in a larger community, sometimes people need temporary isolation. This is a good kind of isolation.

How does the shift in perspective in Moby-Dick, Chapters 36–40 affect the reader's experience of the story?

In Chapters 36–40, the story moves beyond Ishmael's first-person perspective. The shift lets readers see and hear what is going on aboard the ship without necessitating Ishmael's presence. Readers see and hear firsthand what is going on in Captain Ahab's private rooms as well as in the few moments of solitude the mates manage to have. Another effect is to allow Ishmael, up until now the reader's main "friend" among the characters, to become just another character. This is important because it is the entire crew that is now going to be involved in Ahab's mission. They are no longer men with their own motives for sailing—they are united in one purpose: Ahab's purpose. Ishmael is one of this crew. He is exceptional in other ways, but at this moment in the story, he is just one of the crowd.

How do Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask differ in their perspectives on life in Moby-Dick?

Starbuck is a Quaker and a man who takes his faith seriously. He relies on his faith to help him make decisions and is morally opposed to Captain Ahab's course of action, but he feels duty-bound to obey him. Stubb, on the other hand, insists on laughing at even the most dire circumstances. He sees that the situation with Ahab is not good, perhaps even dangerous. But he feels that because everything is predestined and you can't change it, you might as well laugh and try to have fun in the process: "Because a laugh's the wisest, easiest answer to all that's queer; and come what will, one comfort's always left—that unfailing comfort is, it's all predestinated." Flask is described as having an "ignorant, unconscious fearlessness" of all things, especially whales. He doesn't respect or admire them; he simply wants to hunt them.

What is the purpose of the ritual ceremony described in Chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, Chapter 36?

After Captain Ahab informs his crew of the real mission of the Pequod and answers Starbuck's objections, he has the crew all drink from the same cup. This reflects the sacrament of communion practiced by Christians and helps to add a religious element to the mission, elevating it beyond simple hunting or revenge. Then he has the mates cross their lances, and he lays his hand on them where they intersect. This is also to appeal to a sense of religious fervor or mysticism: he wants to shock "into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life." Finally, he has the harpooners drink out of the sockets of their harpoons and swear to hunt and kill Moby Dick. This helps to ensure their complete devotion to his purpose.

In Moby-Dick, how do the motives for going to sea on the Pequod differ among Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and Starbuck?

Ishmael goes to sea because he is at an emotionally low point in his life, and he believes being on a whaling ship will make him feel better. He feels an attraction to the sea and wants to facilitate a break from life on land. Captain Ahab goes to sea because he wants to kill Moby Dick out of revenge for causing him to lose a leg. Starbuck is only on the Pequod as a profession; he is in the business of whaling and wants to hunt whales for their profitable parts—whale oil, spermaceti, bones, and the like. While Ishmael and Ahab's motives are emotional, Starbuck's is logical.

How do allusions to Narcissus and King Ahab help to develop the character of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick?

In Chapter 1, Ishmael foreshadows Captain Ahab with a reference to Narcissus. According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was walking by a river and while bending down for a drink of water saw his reflection. He was enamored by the beauty of his own reflection and fell in love. Because he could not obtain his love, he died on the riverbank. This allusion shows Ahab's self-obsession. As Ishmael says, "But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans." However, this proves more true than is healthy for Ahab. Ahab's name is another allusion. According to the Bible, King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, condoned pagan practices, including prostitution and human sacrifice. God's prophet, Elijah, confronted Ahab throughout Ahab's reign. Elijah spoke out repeatedly against Ahab, calling him to repentance. This allusion shows Ahab's opposition to God's order, and reflects the way that prophets continually warn against his actions.

What is Flask's nickname in Moby-Dick, and how appropriate is it?

In Moby-Dick, the third mate, Flask, is nicknamed "King-Post" by the crew. Flask is short and stocky, so the nickname fits him physically. Like Flask, the king post on a ship is short and strong. However, the purpose of the king post is to "brace the ship against the icy concussions of those battering seas." Flask cannot be viewed as a protective character because he never considers the consequences of the risks he takes when hunting whales. However, his single-minded focus on killing whales does make it possible to view him as an unbending timber that is not swayed by any forces around him, "made to clinch tight and last long."

In Moby-Dick, how do the pipes of Queequeg, Captain Ahab, and Stubb compare symbolically?

Queequeg's pipe is made out of a tomahawk, and in the first chapters of Moby-Dick he and Ishmael smoke it together as a symbol of their friendship. The image of two friends passing a pipe back and forth, sharing a friendly moment together, is very positive. In Chapter 27, Stubb's pipe is said to be what "helped to bring about that almost impious good-humor of his." Ishmael believes it keeps the "nameless miseries" out of Stubb's life. So in this case, too, the pipe brings comfort. Captain Ahab's pipe may have once given him pleasure, but in Chapter 30 of Moby-Dick, he throws it overboard. This is a symbolic rejection of any of the comforts that a pipe might bring, such as good humor or companionship.

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