What is Ishmael satirizing in the last scene of chapter 35 "The Masthead" in Melville's Moby Dick?

1 Answer | Add Yours

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Chapter 35 of Moby Dick finds Ishmael engaged in metaphysical reverie at he narrates his experience of standing at the masthead as lookout for whales.  Satire is prevalent throughout this chapter as, for instance, he notes at the chapter's beginning that whale ship captains insisted that the mastheads were manned to the very last moments of the voyage,

not till her sky-sail poles sail in among the spires of the port, does she altogether relinquish the hope of capturing one whale more.

Later, Ishmael wryly attributes "the business of standing mast-heads" to the Babylonians with their tower. But, at the chapter's end, after he has described his reverie in the masthead in which he contemplates metaphysical questions, and, while doing so, probably misses the sighting of whales, he satirizes himself as he cautions captains against hiring  “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men,” who are likely to miss whales in the vicinity.  He satirically alludes to himself as

a sunken-eyed young Platonist [who] will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer.

In another satiric allusion, Ishmael calls himself Child Harold, Lord Byron's world-weary young man who seeks adventure and distraction in foreign lands.  Finally, Ishamel's satire extends to his Platonic desire to find meaning in the universe and, in so doing, loses his identity by immersing himself so much in metaphysical reflection that he loses sight of any whales. Ishmael describes himself as in an "opium-like" listlessness with

the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; ....[that] seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul flitting through it.

Finally, Ishamel mocks himself as a Pantheist, declaring that his existence in the masthead becomes only "that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship" until the day he too slip and his life become much like the life of the idealist Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who was burned as a heretic by Queen Mary. Cranmer immersed his hand into the fire in the Pantheistic belief that he would be one with nature.

We’ve answered 317,808 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question