CR Episode 187: Moby Dick, Part XIII

Moby Dick: The Candles, by Rockwell Kent
Moby Dick: The Candles, by Rockwell Kent

Download Link: Released on 7 August 2023

In the penultimate Moby Dick episode, the panel discusses chapters 114–128, focusing on the ship’s sails, quadrant, compass, and line; the refashioning of the Pequod into the expression of Ahab’s will; and Ahab’s final abandonment of his humanity.


  1. The Quadrant

    As Dr. C pointed out, a typical quadrant can be a simple board with a plumb bob. Thanks to the Higgledy Piggledy podcasters, I am aware that there is also a “reflecting quadrant”. This more complex instrument is the size of an octant but, through the use of mirrors, can double the range of angles to the size of a quadrant. If the title of the chapter had been “The Reflecting Quadrant” the name would describe why Ahab is so angry at the instrument – it only reflects what he already knows but does not tell him what he does not know. Why Melville didn’t use this better name is a mystery to me.

    The video below shows these navigational tools in use – including one with a built in pencil holder and ivory plate to record readings – it would be very handy for all of us who do not have ivory legs to write on! The Wikipedia entry “Octant (instrument)” has information on reflecting quadrants.

    The Whale Watch

    To my reading, the only clearly supernatural event on the Pequod’s voyage is the very specific fulfillment of the prophecies first described in this chapter. This raises interesting questions.

    1. Why did Melville include this one instance of a supernatural event? Was he skeptical of religion in general but wanted to include a hint of a possibility of a power beyond nature?

    2. Does the fulfillment of the prophecies mean Ahab is correct when he says “I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”? Does Melville want us to believe there is no free will because all has been preordained by a higher power? Or is there an escape clause? (Discussed below).

    Does Ishmael Time Travel?

    Many thanks to Scott Norsworthy who let us know about the magazine articles that changed the date of when Ishmael wrote The Fountain. He also has a fantastic website.

    Like the magazine editors, I am also intrigued by Melville using a date after the book was published. I understand Dr. K’s point that this is a work of fiction and need not be tied to the rules of our world. However, when a narrator has spent chapter upon chapter telling me what is true, or what he believes to be true, about the world that I live in, I would be disappointed if he then told me something demonstrably false. Perhaps this date was one additional way Melville slipped in a hint that he wanted us to believe in the supernatural – or at least that a power beyond our current knowledge – exists.

    Thus, this could be the free will escape clause. After the voyage, Ishmael briefly travels back in time to tell Fedallah what is going to happen and that he is the person who must warn Ahab. Although Ahab has free will and could change his mind, he misinterprets the warnings, resulting in the same catastrophic end.

    I know this is probably not what Melville was hinting at, but I would prefer to live in a world where people have free will and Ishmael can time travel. : – )

    The Musket

    I arrived at the Mystic Seaport Marathon last week at 11:00 am (when the The Gilder was being read) and stayed until the end at 3:00 pm. I was elated that one of the chapters I was able to read was The Musket.

    This is Starbucks’ “rock and a hard place” when he has to decide whether or not to act against Ahab. After a long deliberation, “The yet levelled 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.”

    In the story in Genesis, Jacob wrestles with an angel and eventually prevails. The angel blesses him and bestows him with a new name – Israel – and his life is changed forever after.

    Did Starbuck win his struggle with the angel by not shooting Ahab and not becoming a murderer? Or did he lose because he didn’t kill Ahab and now the entire crew will die? The fact that his decision maintained the status quo and Starbuck was unchanged, suggests that he did not pass the test. Thoughts?

    Or is it a Kobayashi Maru test with no possible right answer? What do you think Captain Kirk would do in Starbuck’s place? Interestingly, this test was introduced in the Wrath of Khan.

    O< O< O<


  2. I want to add to Susan’s speculations about Starbuck not killing Ahab when he had the chance. Was Melville criticizing the Christian concept of not fighting evil? After all by not eliminating Ahab, the entire crew dies. Or was Melville admiring Starbuck for being a good Christian by not killing Ahab?
    Another question is do you agree with a speculation I have that Melville was critical of the self denying morality of the New Testament and was promoting the Old Testament’s more black and white morality? Moby Dick is full of the Old Testament and that fuels my speculation.

  3. Another wonderful conversation, thank you! I especially enjoyed hearing your insights about the Parsee’s dubious prophecies, Ahab’s displacement of Ishmael (as chapters of cetology and philosophy give way to straight-ahead narration), and Ahab’s insane fixation as a Descent into Hell. The sailors are rightly terrified of Ahab now, but all have previously sworn their allegiance to the unholy quest. Vows were made, however compelled. As he reminds the crew at the end of Chapter 119, The Candles, Ahab regards their former oaths as “binding”: “All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine.” Ahab here must be talking about the oath-taking ceremony in Chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck. Willingly or no, the three mates then crossed lances in a dramatic show of unity that possibly recalls David’s famous painting The Oath of the Horatii.

    Then the harpooners drank “fiery” grog from upturned harpoon sockets, depicted as “murderous chalices.” Our narrator likewise surrendered to Ahab’s spell. At the start of Chapter 41 Moby-Dick Ishmael admits, “I, ISHMAEL, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.”

    In the Musket Chapter 123 Starbuck paraphrases Ahab’s argument–oddly, as if speaking Ahab’s words back to Ahab: “Aye, and say’st the men have vowed thy vow; say’st all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid!” Somehow these oaths interfere with Starbuck’s reasoning, although I don’t know the answer to the question raised by Susan and Robert about the morality of his decision. Our narrator (still Ishmael?) has introduced the idea of shooting Ahab as an “evil thought,” so maybe Starbuck won this struggle with the Angel by not committing murder. Being good himself, perhaps he could not have done otherwise. In this view he would seem as much governed by Fate as Ahab, “the Fates’ lieutenant.”

  4. Wasn’t prepared for the end of chapter 128. Ahab crossing a line there’s no going back from.

    By this time I have finished the book, and I thought it wrapped up so beautifully.

    Later that day I listened to a youtube video and someone talked about Wuthering Heights and how with great works there’s often this circular between the beginning and the end and when you reach the end it draws to back to the beginning. That’s certainly the case with Moby Dick. The ending left me melancholy and amazed. There was a damp, drizzly November in my soul, and I felt the need to get to sea.

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