Moby Dick

Moby Dick Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-40

Chapter Twenty-One: Going Aboard:

Elijah sees Ishmael again, and asks him if he is going aboard, then attempts to detain him. However, Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, where they find everything quiet. Ishmael believes that he sees shadows on board, and he and Queequeg awake the chief mate of the ship, Starbuck. The crew comes on board in twos and threes, while Captain Ahab remains invisible to everyone within his cabin.


The second appearance of Elijah reinforces his importance as a prophetic character as well as the grave undertones of the voyage, solidifying his claims of impending tragedy upon the Pequod. Melville creates a sense of ominous tension through the stillness and quiet of this chapter; the nearly silent ship and the seemingly dead Starbuck create the mood of a cemetery or crypt. Melville compounds this through the shadows that Ishmael sees, which contain elements of a ghost story. In addition, the religious connotations to the novel continue as the crew boards the ship; their arrival in pairs recalls the story of Noah and the Ark, as if the crew were the last remnants of a world they are leaving behind.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Merry Christmas:

Peleg asks Starbuck whether everything is all right, and orders him to get Captain Ahab. Peleg gives orders to the crew, while Bildad scolds the crew for profanity. Bildad paces about the deck, somewhat loath to leave the boat on such a long voyage. Peleg takes the departure more "like a philosopher," but despite this there is still some regret as he and Bildad board their boat and leave the Pequod for the shore as it sails out to sea.


The title of this novel is ironic, for it is the only significant mention of the holiday throughout the chapter; upon boarding the Pequod, such details as dates and holidays lose their significance as the crew removes themselves from normal society. Yet the characters Peleg and Bildad contribute to the notion that this removal from society is somewhat regrettable. Despite their return to the comforts of land, Bildad and Peleg are mournful that they must leave the Pequod.

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Lee Shore:

When the Pequod thrusts into the waves, Ishmael sees Bulkington, a dangerous man just landed from a four years' dangerous voyage whom he had seen at the Coffin inn. The land seems "scorching" to Bulkington's feet, and Ishmael begins to think about how "in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God," and thus it is better to die at sea than on land.


Both this and the previous chapter posit the idea that a certain class of persons exist who operate better on the sea than on land, as shown by Bildad and Peleg, both regretful that they must leave the Pequod for shore, and Bulkington, who seemed unnatural when Ishmael saw him on land at the Coffin inn. Ishmael attributes this to a certain psychological attainment, claiming that truth belongs at sea for its indefinite quality and flexibility. For Melville, the sea represents a degree of mystery and abstraction compared to the more definite atmosphere of dry land.

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Advocate:

The business of whaling is not considered by those in the liberal professions and is largely unnoticed, likely because others believe that the vocation amounts to a butchering sort of business. Yet this is an important business, as shown by the Dutch, who have admirals of their whaling fleets, or the lavish expenses bestowed on whaling fleets by Louis XVI. Ishmael refutes the claim that the whaler has no famous author or chronicler by citing Job, who wrote the first account of the Leviathan. There is dignity in whaling, an imperial profession. Ishmael calls a whale ship his Yale and his Harvard.


One of the primary reasons that Moby Dick is considered a paramount of American literature is its stylistic ambition; the novel encompasses a wide range of genres and shifts in and out of them while interrupting the narrative. Here Melville abandons the actual plot of the novel to indulge in an argumentative essay concerning the merits of whaling. In terms of the novel as a whole, this chapter serves to equate whaling with something larger and more significant through the allusions to Louis XVI and Jonah. The numerous reference to the whale as a Leviathan are certain significant in a political context as well, recalling the title of the famous political tract by Thomas Hobbes in which he names the machinery of the state a "Leviathan." These allusions give added significance to the whaling mission, imbuing it with political and social connotations that will become more clear as the novel progresses.

Chapter Twenty-Five: Postscript:

Ishmael notes that the same oil used for the coronation of kings is sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state.


This chapter is essentially as its title states, a postscript; this is important for stylistic integrity, lending integrity to the essay style of the previous chapter in its complete form.

Chapter Twenty-Six: Knights and Squires:

Starbuck is a native of Nantucket and a Quaker by descent. He is quite thin, which seems to be a condensation of the man, who is by no means ill-looking. He is no crusader after perils, for in him courage is not a sentiment but a thing that is useful. Ishmael posits that man in the ideal, is so noble and sparkling, that "over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes."


Starbuck serves as a contrast to the grand and obsessive Ishmael; he is more rational and grounded than Ishmael, a man pared down to his most basic values and ideals. In some sense, Starbuck represents efficiency and rationality, but he also has a core of idealism that endows him with a great sense of nobility and a faith in mankind that starkly conflicts with the dark and brooding sense of humanity held by Ahab. These qualities in Starbuck foreshadow later conflict between Ahab and Starbuck; Melville creates such a contrast between the two characters' values that a conflict between the obsessive Ahab and the rational Starbuck seems inevitable.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Knights and Squires:

Stubb is the second mate of the voyage, a native of Cape Cod and a happy-go-lucky man. He is good-humored, easy and careless. There is no telling what he thought of death, and Ishmael wonders how he can remain so easy-going and unfearing. Ishmael attributes it in part to his smoking. The third mate of the ship is Flask, a native of Martha's Vineyard who is very pugnacious concerning whales. Starbuck, Flask and Stubb are momentous men. Queequeg is selected as Starbuck's harpooner. Tashtego, an Indian from Martha's Vineyard, is the harpooner for Stubb. The third harpooner is Daggoo, a gigantic black man from Africa who still retains his barbaric virtues. According to Ishmael, islanders make the best whale men; he dubs them Isolatoes, not acknowledging the common continent of men but living on a separate continent of one's own.


Melville adds greater depth to the characters who make up the crew of the Pequod in this chapter, in which he portrays Stubb as a jovial and good-humored person who remains undaunted by the events around him, and Flask as an aggressive New Englander. The division of labor among the ship seems significant; while all of the officers are from the eastern United States, specifically New England, their assistants are drawn strictly from less civilized cultures: American Indian, African and Aboriginal. Yet Ishmael seems to indicate that there is an order to the ship apart from race or national identity despite the hierarchy of the ship; the men who are the superior whalers are those who are "isolatoes," not bound to particular allegiances and instead living as independent persons separate from their culture. This further continues the theme of Moby Dick concerning the whale voyage as an escape from the normal confines of civilization; on the whale ship men need not be concerned with their identities and become an independent part of their particular crew.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Ahab:

For several days after leaving Nantucket, nothing is seen of Captain Ahab. The seclusion of Ahab begins to disturb Ishmael, who remembers Elijah's diabolical rants about him. Still, Ishmael concedes that three better chief officers could not be found for the ship. Captain Ahab finally appears on deck one day, bearing no signs of illness and looking like a man cut away from the stake. He seems to be made of solid bronze. There is a slender rod-like mark on his face that appears branded upon him. Ahab stands on an ivory leg, fashioned from the bone of a Sperm Whale's jaw. Ahab gives an appearance of fortitude, but soon withdraws into the cabin. After that morning, he is visible every day to the crew and eventually becomes a little genial and less and less a recluse. In one instance, he even appears to give what in another man would be considered a smile.


Ahab finally receives an introduction in this chapter after a long period of foreshadowing by Melville. In contrast to the portrayals of the other ship officers by Melville, the description of Ahab focuses on the qualities that are inhuman and even mechanical. There are few details akin to those given for Stubb or Starbuck, which emphasize their personalities and ideals; instead, Melville gives a basic physical description of Ahab that compares him to largely inhuman and inanimate objects. The basic impression that Melville gives of Ahab is one of durability; Ahab is a man who shows few basic human characteristics, but instead has been chiseled and formed by his whaling experiences. His ivory leg is a significant aspect of his character, demonstrating both this somewhat inhuman quality to Ahab as well as showing that the whale is an inseparable part of Ahab himself, literally part of his body.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb:

Some days elapse and the Pequod reaches the bright Quito spring in the Tropics. Every twenty-four hours at night Ahab would aid the sailors with the rope, a "touch of humanity" in him. When Stubb makes a joke at Ahab's expense, Ahab sharply reprimands him and calls him a donkey, then a mule. He finally kicks Stubb. Stubb wonders how Ahab seems to sleep only three hours each night, and says that Ahab is afflicted with "what some folks ashore call a conscience." Stubb admits that "coming afoul of that old man has a sort of turned me wrong side out."


The occasion details marking Ahab's friendly or cordial behavior serve not to humanize Ahab, but instead to emphasize how separate and distinct he remains from the rest of the crew. Whenever he performs a kindly action it is a departure from his conventional behavior and thus notable. More appropriate to Ahab's demeanor is his stern treatment of Stubb, which instills a great fear and loathing in him. Melville even portrays Ahab as a person who does not even need to follow conventional human behaviors, living on barely any sleep. However, Stubb draws an interesting conclusion from this behavior by Ahab, finding that this is evidence that Ahab has a conscience. This suggests that particular human qualities may exist within Ahab, despite his stoic and harsh behavior; in particular, Ahab is a haunted man, afflicted by his experiences and obsessed with these.

Chapter Thirty: The Pipe:

When Stubb had departed, Ahab stands leaning over the bulwarks, where he remarks that smoking no longer soothes, and he tosses the lighted pipe into the sea then paces around the ship.


Melville demonstrates Ahab's power and influence over his crew through the effect that Ahab has on Stubb, who is shaken by his confrontation with Ahab. This bolsters the idea that Ahab is a fearsome man not to be opposed, not only because of his physical and direct influence over others but also because of the psychological stress that he places on others. Ahab is capable of creating a sense of turmoil and unease in Stubb, who finds no solace for his anxiety concerning Ahab.

Chapter Thirty-One: Queen Mab:

Stubb tells Flask that he dreamed that Captain Ahab kicked him with his ivory leg, and when he tried to kick back he kicked Ahab's leg right off. Stubb muses on the difference between a living leg and a false one, and claims that a blow from the hand is fifty times more savage than a blow from a cane. Flask tells him that a kick from Ahab bestows honors akin to a slap by a queen.


Melville continues to elaborate the theme of Ahab as inhuman through this chapter, in which Stubb muses on the difference between a living leg and a false one, finding a strike by a living one to be far more insulting than being hit by a wooden leg.

The title of this chapter, Queen Mab, refers to a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by Mercutio, in which he speaks of the fairy queen who visits persons to instill dreams in them. The title is this ironic, considering the Queen Mab soliloquy refers to dreams of romance while Stubb instead has bizarre dreams of revenge.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Cetology:

Cetology is the study of whales, and the subject has been lengthily handled by numerous authors including Captain Scoresby, the best existing authority on the Greenland whale. There are only two books that pretend to put the living Sperm Whale as their subject and succeed at the task, by Bennett and by Beale, both surgeons to English whale ships. Ishmael finally defines a whale as a spouting fish with a horizontal tail, going back to the claim by Jonah that the whale is a fish. Ishmael discusses the differences between the various whales, noting each type and the characteristics of the respective types of whale.


Melville once again abandons the narrative of the novel to adopt a different stylistic tone for Moby Dick. The novel now shifts to a scientific discourse on the study of whales in an attempt to elucidate their particular characteristics. The effect of this description of cetology, however, has an opposite effect; instead of giving a clear indication of the Sperm Whale, the chapter on cetology contributes to the idea that the sperm whale is something difficult to study and define. This lends credence to more symbolic definitions of the white whale that is the novel's title character; since it is more difficult to define the whale in scientific terms, the whale thus lends itself to more vague and creative symbolism.

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Specksynder:

In the days of the Dutch Fishery, the Chief Harpooner or Specksynder reigned supreme. In the American Fishery is not only an important officer in the boat, but under certain circumstances the commander of the ship's deck. Captain Ahab tends to mask himself behind the forms and usages of the sea, for he has an intellectual superiority that can manifest itself in irresistible dictatorship. Ahab moves among his crew in all his "Nantucket grimness and shagginess."


In this chapter, Melville contributes additional information concerning the operations of the whaling ship and its hierarchy, framing the role of the harpooner or Specksynder in comparison with the rest of the crew. More importantly, Melville continues to elucidate the character of Ahab as not only an imposing and obsessive man, but a person whose intellectual capacity lends itself to a strong sense of dictatorship and control. It is these qualities that will become significant once the conflict with Moby Dick comes to prominence as the novel progresses.

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Cabin-Table:

At noon Dough-Boy the steward announces dinner to the ship officers. Ahab presides over the table like a mute sea-lion surrounded by his deferential cubs, but in him there seems to be no social arrogance. The table is silent, but because Ahab forbade conversation; it is only that he is silent. Flask is the last person down at the table and the first one to leave; since Flask had become an officer he had never known what it was to be otherwise than hungry, more or less, for what he eats does not relieve his hunger as keep it immortal in him. In contrast to the captain's table is the cabin's table where everyone else eats. Dough-Boy seems tense while serving Queequeg and Tashtego. Ahab seems no exception to most American whale captains, who believe that the ship's cabin belongs to them and it is by courtesy alone that anybody else is permitted there. Socially, Ahab is inaccessible, nominally included in the census of Christendom, but still alien to it.


The particularly inhuman qualities to Ahab manifest themselves in strange and surprising ways; despite his dictatorial streak and fearsome manner, he has no hierarchical sense of social propriety nor "social arrogance." Melville thus makes an important distinction, finding Ahab to be inaccessible not because he considers himself a social superior to his crew, but because he is not part of this crew. This further relates to the idea of Ahab as inhuman and, as Melville calls him, "alien" to others.

As well as the separation between Ahab and his crew, an additional division that Melville describes in this chapter is the line between the officers and the crew, who take their meals at different tables and eat under more tense conditions. Melville does not strongly develop the contrast between the two tables in order to make an explicit statement, but does leave the difference between the two as a reminder of the hierarchy of the Pequod.

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Mast-Head:

In most American whalemen the mast-heads are manned almost simultaneously with the vessel's leaving her port. There is a long history of mast-heads dating back to the Egyptians. Obed of Nantucket tells that in the early times of whale fishery, before ships were regularly launched in pursuit of game, people of Nantucket erected spars along the sea-coast as lookouts, but this custom has now become obsolete. There are unfortunate whale ships unprovided with crow's nests, the little tents or pulpits that protect the whaler from inclement weather.


This chapter is yet another instance in which Melville abandons the narrative to employ a different style of writing. He once again returns to a historical view of whaling, citing developments in the industry and changes to it.

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Quarter-Deck:

Ahab ascends the cabin-gangway to the deck and paces as usual; his pacing has made dents that look deeper and deeper. Stubb remarks to Flask that "the chick that's in him pecks the shell. 'Twill soon be out." Ahab asks the men what they will do when they see a whale, as if building up their energy for the task at hand. He tells the crew that whichever one raises Ahab a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw will have an ounce of gold. Tashtego asks Ahab if this white whale is the one called Moby Dick. Starbuck asks Ahab if it was Moby Dick who took Ahab's leg, and Ahab admits as such. Stubb whispers that Moby Dick smites Ahab's chest, and that "it rings most vast, but hollow." Starbuck tells Ahab that his obsession with Moby Dick is madness. Ahab claims that all things are but masks but in each event there is some unknown reasoning behind that mask, and man must strike through this mask. For Ahab, the white whale is that mask. He says that "that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate" and "truth has no confines."


It is in this chapter that Herman Melville first mentions the titular character of the novel, the white Sperm Whale responsible for the loss of Ahab's leg. Body parts are a prevalent motif throughout this chapter, with the mention of Ahab's lost leg and the reference to Stubb about how Ahab's chest "rings most vast, but hollow." This lends credence to the idea that Moby Dick afflicts Ahab in a very personal way, striking at not only his leg but his mind and his heart. Even at this first mention of Moby Dick, Melville indicates that Ahab's obsession with the whale is a sign of madness.

For Ahab, the defeat of Moby Dick will represent a personal redemption and a means of achieving clarity and peace. Claiming that Moby Dick is "chiefly what I hate" gives the whale greater significance for Ahab, who finds that the whale represents all of the mysteries of his life. This creates an interesting duality; the quest to find Moby Dick is therefore both an external conflict between Ahab and the whale as well as an internal conflict within Ahab for a sense of peace and happiness.

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Sunset:

Ahab sits alone in the cabin by the stern windows, gazing outward. This chapter is told from the perspective of Ahab, who claims that there was once a time when the sunrise nobly spurred him, but no more. He considers what he has dared and willed, and what he will do, despite the fact that Starbuck may think him mad. Ahab calls himself "madness maddened."


With Moby Dick yet to appear, Melville develops the primary conflict of this section to be the struggle of Ahab against his intense desire to defeat the white whale. These internal thoughts by Ahab are significant, for they demonstrate that Ahab has a sense of self-awareness concerning his supposed madness; he is not a man completely possessed by his need for justice, but a man who realizes his faults and in some sense attempts to suppress them.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Dusk:

Starbuck leans against the mainmast. This chapter is told from the perspective of Starbuck, who says that his soul is more than matched and is over-manned by a madman. Starbuck thinks that he will see Ahab's impious end, but he feels that he must help him to it. Starbuck nevertheless retains some sense of hope.


Through the shift of perspective during this chapter, Melville develops yet another internal character conflict, this time within Starbuck, whom Melville further establishes as the character most likely to oppose Ahab over his quest against Moby Dick. However, while foreshadowing a conflict between Starbuck and Ahab, Melville also makes the important note that whatever opposition Starbuck voices will be significant, for Starbuck has great reservations about opposing Ahab, whom he both fears and pities.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: First Night-Watch:

Stubb is alone at the fore-top, mending a brace. Melville writes this chapter from his perspective. Stubb muses that a laugh is the wisest, easiest answer to all that is queer.


In contrast to the grave and serious Starbuck and Ahab, Stubb maintains a light and casual perspective concerning the impending conflicts. Stubb refuses to take anything seriously, but does so out of a staunch refusal to give in to the same ponderous gravity that afflicts the others. He is light-hearted, but adopts this attitude in some sense as a defense mechanism.

Chapter Forty: Midnight, Forecastle:

The various harpooners and sailors sing in chorus "farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies." They sing "our captain stood upon the deck, / a spy glass in his hand, / a viewing of those gallant whales / that blew at every strand." Sailors from various nationalities give their various thoughts on the voyage. The crew cheers at the impending arrival of the white whale.


Despite the definite feelings of misgiving on the part of Starbuck and the distrustful narrator's voice of Ishmael, there is little atmosphere of gloom and foreboding among the rest of the crew concerning Ahab's obsession with the whale. This chapter describes the cheerful reaction of the crew, who eagerly anticipate their adventure. This is significant, for Melville prepares the reader for the eventual doubts of the crew concerning Ahab's quest against Moby Dick.