Eventually after months at sea Ahab tells the crew the real intent of the voyage. Whaling is incidental. The real purpose is a quest, nominally to find and kill a great white whale. Or perhaps, more accurately to pursue and kill God. It is hardly a holy quest. It was in fact a quest for vengeance because the whale on a previous voyage attacked Ahab who was pursuing him, and chewed off his leg in self-defence. Now Ahab had one ivory leg.
Captain Ahab said he would pursue the whale, Moby Dick, round the world and
“round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, me! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fins out.”
Some of the crew see that Ahab must be mad. This is literally a mad quest. Starbuck, one of the mates, says, “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.” He realizes this is “blasphemous.” This is not your ordinary religious quest, this in fact a blasphemous religious quest.
But Ahab denies that his quest for revenge is blasphemous: Ahab was delirious with a desire for revenge against the whale. This riled Ahab to no limit of fury. Ahab saw in the whale “outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate, and be the white whale agent, or be he principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk to me not of blasphemy man: I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
The classic quest was of course the quest for the Holy Grail—the Chalice of God from the Last Supper. There is a perverse version of that in the novel. This was the ceremony in which Ahab enlisted his ship-mates in his unholy quest. Ahab gathered the men around him and passing the “bringing pewter” around, with drink “hot as Satan’s hoof.” The men standing around the captain had “wild eyes,” like “bloodshot eyes of the prairie wolves” looking at their leader. Ahab appointed the three mates “cupbearers to my three pagan kinsmen,” the harpooneers, calling them “my sweet cardinals.” They were cardinals in a diabolical religion. Ahab acknowledged that these are “murderous chalices,” as the “the long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale.” “The spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss.” No matter what Ahab tells his men, clearly this quest was more Satanic than divine sent forth with malediction rather than benediction.
The narrator, Ishmael realizes Ahab’s quest is for an “impious end” but he, like the other men, can’t resist helping him. Ishmael sees “my miserable office— to obey.” Even though Ahab has a “heaven insulting purpose” and he is sailing “with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them. Whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea. The white whale is their demigorgon (murderous demon beast).”
Ishmael is pointing out how a religious quest can turn Satanic. Not exactly something most of us would seek out. But something that would be worth understanding. How does this happen?