How is Starbuck contrasted with Captain Ahab? Who do you think is right? Why?

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In chapter 36, “The Quarter Deck,” Ahab tries to convince Starbuck to share his quest for vengeance against Moby Dick. Starbuck is shown to be a model whaleman and a hard-headed practical thinker. Ahab, on the other hand, is a man obsessed with vengeance who will stop at nothing until he has it. As Starbuck says, “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance.”

Another difference between the two characters is their sense of morality. Starbuck represents a kind of conventional Christian morality; he is opposed to killing Moby Dick unless “it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow.” For Starbuck, the whale, as a “dumb brute,” has no responsibility for what it did to Ahab. For Ahab, however, the whale is representative of a darker kind of malignity that pervades the world. When Ahab encourages Starbuck to understand the “little lower layer” of his thinking, he suggests that reality is a kind of fake: he says, “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.” The idea that reality might be merely symbolic is something Starbuck cannot understand or accept. His only response is, “God keep me!—keep us all!”

Who is right? It is not really something that admits of right and wrong. One could argue that Starbuck is right, in that he rightly knows that Ahab’s vengeance would get their ship into trouble. On the other hand, Ahab’s vengeance against the whale is something he is driven to do. Whether it would be “better” if he did not follow this dream depends on what you mean by “better.” In a sense, it would have been better if the ship had not been destroyed, but in another sense Ahab’s quest has a certain nobility to it, the nobility of a personality struggling with the titanic issues of meaning and existence.

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