Starbuck, another member of the crew in Moby Dick, was clearly a good man caught up in a storm. He was the first mate and was the voice of reason on the ship. He was also a very religious man, even by the standards of the 19th century. He was a Quaker and came to realize that Captain Ahab was mad and that unless he killed him the crew would likely die and he would never see his wife and children again. He was the exact opposite of the Captain, but he just could not pull the trigger. Perhaps his religion restrained him. If it was, his God, God cost a lot of lives, as we know before the voyage is over.
Near the end when the ship was in the midst of a rare tranquil sea. Ishmael described it this way, Ahab learns the painful truth. “…he seemed to hear in his own true heart, the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around.”
Near the end of the voyage, Ahab realized that he had “forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep.” For forty years he had declared war on nature. This is another great theme of the book, that sadly, I have been neglecting in order to talk about the religious quest. Like the Israelites he had been in the wilderness. But finally, Ahab recognized his huge error. As he said to Starbuck, “for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul.” Ahab knows the quest has shriveled his soul. Not what religious quests should do. They should expand the soul. What went wrong?
Ahab realized he was
“whole oceans away from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? Wife”—rather a widow with her husband alive. I widowed that poor girl when I married her.”
Ahab finally has the knowledge of what he had done and it is not too late to turn back for home as Starbuck begs him to do. Instead of spending time with his lovely young wife he went a-whaling in mad pursuit of a white whale. As Ahab told Starbuck,
“I married her Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brown, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!”
The quest had turned him into a fiend. Ahab realized he had been a “forty years fool.” Ahab asks God to “crack my heart! Stave my brain.” Ahab begs his first mate Starbuck to “let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone! This is the magic glass; I see my wife and child in thine eye.” Finally Ahab has a connection. I would say a real religious connection; not a mad quest.
It seems like at long last Ahab realizes what a mistake he has made for forty years. So, Starbuck gives him one last chance. He begs him to give up this mad chase. “Let us fly these deadly waters! Let us home!”
Despite his new knowledge of his dreadful mistake, Ahab cannot give up the chase. He knows his quest is mad yet this is what he says:
“What is it, what nameless inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I? God or who lifts this arm?”
Is God at fault? Why? Ahab cannot resist the mad quest. He is helpless before it. That is precisely why he is mad and why the quest is mad. Any quest like that would be mad.