Why does the crew follow Ahab's mission to kill Moby Dick in Moby-Dick?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Captain Ahab calls all of his mariners to come aft, they assemble, and he lays out the great undertaking upon which they are soon to embark. Most of the men are convinced of their duty by promises of riches and gold, which Captain Ahab symbolically represents by displaying a sixteen-dollar gold piece to them all. He says,

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke- look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!

For most of the sailors, this is enough, and the chants of “Huzza!” fill the ship. However, one of the mates, Starbuck, remains incredulous. Starbuck recognizes that Moby Dick is the same white whale that took Captain Ahab’s leg, leaving him disabled. But Moby Dick is just an animal, and Starbuck cannot see the logic in adamantly pursuing revenge against a being that was acting out of pure instinct. He challenges Ahab’s mission, saying,

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

Ahab’s response to him is perhaps the most interesting of his attempts to convince the crew to join him in battle against Moby Dick. He argues that the mere objects that serve as the target of human motivation and action—in this particular case the white whale itself—are merely masks which serve to veil something deeper, a more significant goal than what can be seen. He likens the whale to a prison wall. Though a prisoner strikes at the wall of a prison, the wall is not the target of his energy; the target is the freedom that lays outside the wall. In this same way, the whale is not the target of Ahab’s passions (so he argues); rather, the thought of the whale's conquest inspires him to act.

Though Starbuck is not convinced by these arguments, Ahab successfully rouses the rest of the crew with “brimming pewter” and drink, winning their affection.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ahab is able to convince his crew to follow him on his vengeful mission to kill the white whale, Moby Dick, essentially through the power of rhetoric. He clearly has charisma as a captain, and when he calls the crew out onto the deck in chapter 36, he is ready to stir up the men in support of his own goals. He begins by tying the goal of chasing Moby Dick to the overall goals of the voyage, asking what the men do when they see a whale. The men respond, "Sing out!" Ahab notes the "animation" in the men at being thus addressed by their captain, and encourages this. He first creates enthusiasm in the crew by talking about the act of whaling, and then produces a gold coin, which he polishes on his jacket, to plant in the minds of the men the idea that whaling is a profitable venture.

When he goes on to the question of Moby Dick, then, he has drawn a clear connection between wealth and honest whaling before he even goes on to identify why this particular whale is special. He generates sympathy by noting that it is the fault of Moby Dick that Ahab is cursed to be a "lubber," with only one leg. He then paints an image of the whale as a great monster, and asks whether the men are "game" to fight him—it has been presented to them as a challenge. Ahab notes that the men look "brave," and they instantly respond that they will chase and "splice" the whale, not only to avenge what he has done to Ahab but also to prove themselves.

Starbuck alone does not fall into this frenzy, noting that Moby Dick himself will not fetch a large amount of money and that he did not join this voyage in order to embark upon Ahab's personal quest for vengeance. But his voice is silenced among those of the men eager to join their captain.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Chapter 36 of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Ahab has paced the deck as is his wont; finally, he orders Starbuck "to send everyone aft." When all the ship's company is assembled, Ahab paces some and then asks them, "What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?" The united voices answer him. Ahab's magnetism is tremendous as he pulls the men's attention.  Before he indicates his intent, he nails a Spanish gold doubloon to the mast; then, after mesmerizing them with this bit of wealth, Ahab mentions Moby Dick.  He tells them,

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; shosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke--look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!

The "intense interest and surprise" of the harpooners, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg adds to the the excitement:  they know Moby Dick.  Starbuck then asks if it were not Moby Dick who took off Ahab's leg.  "Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round...."

In his monomanical desire for revenge, Ahab swears that he will chase Moby Dick around the Cape of Good Hope if he must.  He asks the men if they will join him.  The harpooner shout, "Aye! Aye!"  Ahab elicits the crew to help him avenge himself on the White Whale, explaining that the whale represents the impossibility of going behind the superficial layers of nature or reality.  He sees in the white whale "an inscrutable malice."  Further, Nature wears an "unreasoning mask," and Ahab wishes to break through this mask and understand what lies behind it.

Something is touched in the "innermost being" of the men as Ahab declares his both physical and metaphysical mission to find the whale and breakthrough "that pasteboard mask."  He orders the men to have communion with him as a flagon is passed around.  Then, Ahab calls the mates and has them cross their lances cermoniously. He has them remove the ends of their lances and pour the liquor into them.  Alluding to himself as the Pope and his mates as the cardinals, Ahab gives the ceremony religious significance. Ishmael narrates that

A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine.  With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.

The men are mesmerized by the search for the great white, evil whale.  They wish to destroy this force.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial