Moby Dick: Chapters 38-40

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Chapter 38, “Dusk,”
 
Summary
In three scenes, stretching over three chapters, deliberately written in the form of a play, we are given the reactions of the crew to Ahab’s announcement, watch by watch, into the night.
 
The first soliloquy is from the first mate, Starbuck, leaning on the mainmast. He thinks that his soul is overmatched by a madman, yet he is tied to Ahab and must help him. His part is “to obey, rebelling . . . to hate with a touch of pity!” (38. 167) His hope, however, is that they will not meet Moby Dick, that God may spare them that.
 
His heart is lead within him and when he hears the revelry of the men, he thinks the white whale is their “demogorgon” or fate. Their noise is driven by the silence of Ahab on the deck, and Starbuck feels the horror of life fall upon him; yet he will fight as best he can and pray for help.
 
 
Chatper 39, “First Night-Watch,”
 
Summary
The second soliloquy belongs to the second mate, Stubb, on first night-watch. After thinking of their plight, he can only laugh: “a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer . . . [the] unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestined” (39. 168).
 
 
Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle”
 
Summary
At midnight, there can be heard choruses of the harpooners and sailors as they drink and dance. They sing of Spanish ladies and whales and captains. We hear snatches of speeches from each sailor, counterpointed,  showing their acceptance of their fate from different angles, from humor and resignation to aggression and joy. The cabin boy Pip shrinks and fears what is coming, praying: “Oh, thou big white God . . . have mercy on this small black boy” (40. 173).
 
 
Analysis Chapters 38, 39, and 40
Though the entire crew will follow Ahab, we get a glimpse of what Ahab called their wheels fitting into his cogged circle. Starbuck will fight Ahab, even in his yielding; Stubb will laugh; Pip prays  for help. All the sailors from various places—China, Ireland, Manx, Portugal, England, Africa, Spain, France, Sicily, Netherlands, etc. each have their fears, hopes, memories, and delusions as they prepare for the quest for Moby Dick.
 
These three chapters look like a play with stage directions and each character labeled and speaking in turn. As in Shakespearean tragedy, there is the dramatic clash of conflicting purposes and drives, on the one hand, and the forward driving motion of an overarching fate, on the other.
 
 

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