- “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks . . . 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 to
me not of blasphemy, man; I’d smite the sun if it insulted me” (36. 161).
Ahab explains to Starbuck why he has to kill Moby Dick.
- “Oh, hard! That to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasted! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! . . . The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereupon my soul is grooved to run” (37. 165-66).
This is Ahab’s monologue after he announces the purpose of the journey to the crew to hunt Moby Dick. He knows it will consume him in the process.
- “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke. . . prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. . .There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object” (49. 224).
Ishmael reflects after his first close call with death in a whale boat. “The old joker” is apparently a reference to a God with a strange sense of humor.
- ". . . still unresistingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred" (51. 231).
The sea reflects Ahab’s heaving anguish as the spirit-spout of the white whale is seen at night, calling the ship on, confirming Ahab in his illusory quest to fight evil.
- “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! Not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind” (70, 309).
Ahab announces a doctrine of symbolic correspondences. Mind and matter reflect each other. Thus, he constantly takes everything around him as a cosmic sign for his own fate. Here he speaks a soliloquy to the decapitated head of the whale.
- “Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep. And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures [mother whales and their babies] at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy” (87. 385).
Ishmael has a mystic vision of the peaceful center of whale life in the deep that mirrors the deep calm in his own being. This vision of the whale as a symbol of peace contrasts with Ahab’s interpretation of the whale as evil and the agent of destruction.
- “. . . from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes . . . Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom; and therefore his shipmates called him mad” (93. 411).
The black cabin boy, Pip, becomes mad after being left alone in the ocean’s unbounded expanse. After he is rescued, he is a fitting companion to Ahab, because they have both seen behind “the pasteboard mask” of the universe.
- “Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and wood intermixed and hummed around [the whale skeleton on the beach], the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life . . .” (102. 445).
Ishmael describes a whale skeleton that was deified and worshipped by a native tribe. The contrast of the skeleton with green vines and trees growing through it pursues the theme of the intermixture of life and death in the novel.
- “. . . take abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates . . .” (107. 461).
Here Melville wants to set up a contrast between the extraordinary man, Ahab, whose aspirations and thoughts are grand, though abstract and spiritual in nature; and the mundane man, the carpenter, who has few thoughts and is hardly more than a machine. “Abstracted man” could also mean the generic human.
- “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders” (134. 552).
At Starbuck’s pleading for Ahab to turn back, Ahab replies that the end is fated, and he must go through with it. The next day, he is killed, along with all the crew, except Ishmael.
Moby Dick: Top Ten Quotes