The structure of Moby-Dick is is somewhat jarring. We first meet Ishmael, our narrator. As stated earlier, he and his harpooneer friend Queequeg are the story for the first two dozen chapters or so. Then, once the Pequod leaves Nantucket for the wide ocean, both these characters essentially disappear, to be replaced most notably by Second Mate Stubb, First Mate Starbuck, and of course Captain Ahab himself.
In short order, once Ahab makes his first dramatic appearance on deck, we learn what this book will be about. Ahab, it seems, is insane. Having lost his leg (oddly, Melville never tells us which leg Ahab lost) to an enormous white sperm whale named Moby Dick (note that the title of the book has a hyphen, but the name of the whale does not. I’m sure that has some enormous portent, but I have no idea what it is), Ahab has dedicated his remaining life and this whaling voyage in particular to the hunting and killing of same. More on Ahab later. First, his foils.
Stubb is the least important of the three characters named above, but ironically he gets the most “page time” in the book’s middle sections. Stubb is the first to kill a whale. He uses his guile and experience to obtain a second whale, a whale whose belly is filled with stinky but valuable ambergris, a material used in, of all things, perfume. Stubb is described as happy-go-lucky, unconcerned with danger, neither brave nor fearful, but just generally amused.
Starbuck is a character who could have a book (or even a coffee chain) all for himself. He is the conscience of the Pequod, the one man who could have stopped Ahab in his crazy pursuit of Moby Dick. In chapter 123, “The Musket,” Starbuck holds a loaded firearm up to his sleeping captain in one of those scenes that Ishmael could not possibly have observed.
The yet leveled musket shook like a drunkard’s arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place. (p 758)
Later (p 792), Ahab has himself hoisted in a basket above the ship’s deck, so that he might watch the water for Moby Dick. In this circumstance, someone must guard the rope holding the aloft sailor, otherwise a deck hand might inadvertently untie the rope and send the suspended captain falling to his death. For the task of minding his rope, Ahab chooses none other than Starbuck. With yet another chance to end Ahab’s mad quest, Starbuck fails again.
Why? The reason is revealed when we first meet the Pequod’s first mate.
(E)ndured with a deep, natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition . . . Outward portents and inward presentiments were his. (p 167)
While Starbuck might have studied for all its dark portents a fart in the wind, Stubb would probably have just laughed. For Starbuck all was duty – duty and profit, as he said upon the first lowering for a whale. With this outlook on life Starbuck could no more usurp his captain than he could learn to fly.
And then to Ahab. As way of introduction to the most difficult and important character in Moby-Dick, see what he said of Starbuck and Stubb, when each tried to advise Ahab after the whale had destroyed Ahab’s boat and dumped the captain into the ocean:
Stubb saw (Ahab) pause (before his wrecked boat on the deck of the Pequod) . . . eyeing the wreck exclaimed, “-the thistle the ass refused; it pricked his mouth too keenly, sir; ha! ha!”
(and Ahab responded) “What soulless thing is this that laughs before a wreck? Man, man! did I not know thee brave as fearless fire (and as mechanical) I could swear thou wert a paltroon. Groan nor laugh should be heard before a wreck.”
“Aye, sir,” said Starbuck drawing near, “’tis a solemn sight; an omen, and an ill one.”
“Omen? omen?- the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint – Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! Cold, cold- I shiver!- (p 815)
Ahab is, I believe, an atheist.
This requires some explaining. I am an atheist because I look at the world and see no place for the supernatural. As David Deutsch taught me, supernatural explanations are always bad explanations. But if there really were evidence for a superior (even if not a supernatural) being, somehow responsible for our existence, I would still be an atheist – in Ahab’s sense.
Ahab believes in God. There is no question in many of his statements that Ahab looks at the world and sees ample reason to believe in a mysterious reality beyond his own. Today, we are more likely to see the unknown as simply that – unknown. But Ahab was a man of his time. With no good explanations for things like life (remember, this was pre-Darwin), the universe, and everything, Ahab follows nearly all his contemporaries and accepts the existence of God.
So how can Ahab be an atheist if he believes in God? Because Ahab does not accept God’s authority. Ahab has made a monumental discovery. He has discovered himself.
Go back to the quote about Stubb and Starbuck. “Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind;” Earlier, Melville calls Stubb “mechanical.” This is exactly Stubb’s character. He is instinct. He acts without thought. He does not consider. His courage is shallow, because he has never considered the consequences of what he does. Starbuck, in contrast, is the opposite of mechanical. Everything must be considered, every “omen” examined. Nothing means anything to Starbuck except in the context of omens, portents, and his and everyone’s proper place in the established hierarchy.
“(A)nd Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!” Ahab sees himself as different. Why? Because he alone acts neither mechanically nor hierarchically. Ahab alone stands and acts for himself. Alone among God’s creatures, Ahab recognizes his creator, but does not submit to him. Ahab is Ahab’s.
Such sentiments thrill me to my soul. Had I been born into a universe ruled by a god, I would like to believe that I could have Ahab’s courage. However, as we will see in the penultimate entry of my exploration of Moby-Dick, Ahab’s character, and therefore Melville’s interpretation of the world through the character of Ahab, ultimately fails, utterly and completely. But that’s for next time.