In Chapter 36, Captain Ahab comes upon the quarter-deck and calls for all the sailors to come onto the deck, as well. Gathering the crew around him, he admits to them that the pursuance of Moby Dick, who has taken his leg from him, is the purpose of his voyage. The good first mate, Starbuck, is dismayed at Ahab's wish for vengeance upon "a dumb brute," but Ahab's apprehension of the great white whale, an aberration of nature itself, is much more. When Starbuck tells Ahab,
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!...that simply smote thee from blinds instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"Hark ye yet again, the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks [metaphor]. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But, 'tis enough. he tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man, I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. ...Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.
An anti-Transcendentalist, Herman Melville felt that nature was not always sympathetic to man; there was, he believed a malevolence in it. The white whale, hideous in its oddity, is a force of evil behind its "pasteboard mask." Ahab seeks what is behind this "mask"; he seeks the universal truth and explanation of malice that is in nature.