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Themes and Colors
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Race, Fellowship, and Enslavement Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Moby-Dick, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Madness Theme Icon

Through the contrasting characters of Ahab and Pip, the novel presents two very different portraits of madness and its consequences. Throughout the voyage, Ahab’s madness holds sway over the sanity of other characters, most notably his reasonable and prudent first mate Starbuck. Insanity of a different kind is seen in Pip who, like Ahab, goes mad after a traumatic experience at sea. However, while Ahab’s madness propels him to action, Pip’s madness effectively paralyzes him and leaves his mind empty. Perhaps fittingly, then, Pip is the only person on board with whom Ahab develops an affectionate and protective relationship.

One of the interesting implications of madness aboard the Pequod, however, is the willingness of the members of the crew to go along with Ahab’s strange quest, even when they recognize how difficult, perhaps impossible, it would be to find a single whale in all the oceans of the world. But the crew of the Pequod does sign on for the whale-hunt, motivated not simply by the presence of the gold doubloon (which eventually goes down with the ship), but by the mania Ahab has encouraged, the “monomaniacal” pursuit for one whale.

Madness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Madness appears in each chapter of Moby-Dick. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Madness Quotes in Moby-Dick

Below you will find the important quotes in Moby-Dick related to the theme of Madness.
Chapter 19 Quotes

Ye’ve shipped, have ye? Names down on the papers? Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be, after all.

Related Characters: Elijah (speaker), Ishmael, Queequeg
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

There is a great deal of prophecy in Moby-Dick: of predicting, or attempting to predict, the future based on information available in the present. Here, the prophet who stands near the Pequod seems to understand that the ship is headed for danger. The question, of course, is how this prophet (called Old Thunder by some, but also Elijah, the name of a famous Biblical prophet) can know this at all. There is a logical explanation: perhaps Old Thunder has heard from friends in the area that Ahab is a man possessed, and that the captain will stop at nothing to kill the white whale, even if it means killing his entire crew.

But Ishmael, and Melville, hold out for the possibility that there is another motivating factor - that Old Thunder really is in tune with the future, and that he can predict, as can Pip later in the novel, what is to come to pass. In this the novel echoes the nature of Biblical prophecy, in which characters emerge in the Bible's narrative to foreshadow events in later books and epochs. 


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Chapter 23 Quotes

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Bulkington
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

There are numerous interesting plot-threads bound up in this one quotation, itself taken from a very short chapter. Bulkington, as a character, perhaps featured more largely in drafts of the novel, but in the final version, as published, he is almost a stub of a character - a potential for drama never realized. Ishmael does note that Bulkington dies with the rest of the crew of the Pequod. He also notes that Bulkington was a man of adventure, someone ready to take the voyage that might result in his own death.

This is what causes Ishmael to rhapsodize about the nature of chance and risk-taking in a man's life. This aligns with the old adage, that a boat is safe in the harbor, but that boats are made to be taken out into the high seas - toward adventure. If that boat finds its demise there, then that peril was built into the very concept of the boat as a vessel, as a conveyance to another realm. 

Chapter 36 Quotes

It’s a white whale, I say . . . a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Ahab takes it upon himself in this section to explain, at least in part, what is so special about Moby-Dick. The whiteness of the whale, which will be described at other moments in the novel, is striking to Ahab - it is a reminder of how special that whale is. But it is not this alone that makes the whale Ahab's enemy. That, of course, has to do with Ahab's attempt on a previous voyage to kill Moby-Dick - an encounter that ends with Moby-Dick biting off one of Ahab's legs.

Starbuck and other characters will later beg Ahab to end his quest, which they consider foolish, to kill the animal that maimed him. They say this because revenge against an animal is, for them, fundamentally different from revenge against a human. Animals, they note, do not intend the violence they cause - it is simply in their nature. Moby-Dick does not hate Ahab - he merely wants to eat him, or keep from being killed himself. But, for Ahab, Moby-Dick's violence demands violence in return - an eye for an eye. Furthermore, Ahab seems wedded to the very idea of Moby-Dick as an horrifying, unbeatable force, a terrible challenge for Ahab to struggle against. It is not just hate, but also pride and even longing that drives him.

Chapter 41 Quotes

For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Moby Dick
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

This, in Ishmael's words, is the reason why he goes along with Ahab, at least in the beginning, on that man's quest to find and kill Moby-Dick, and to avenge the violence the whale has done to him. Ishmael, of course, has no bone to pick with the whale - it is his first voyage, and he has a hard time even understanding how Ahab could hate a "brute" with such force. But Ishmael also notes that he was susceptible to the desires and the rage of others in the crew. At least in the early part of the voyage, the other sailors also want to kill Moby-Dick, perhaps as a way of showing support for their captain, whom they love and fear. But as the novel goes on, this desire on the part of the crew to capture the whale, and therefore help their leader, goes by the wayside - the characters begin to wonder whether Ahab isn't insane, and whether the quest to kill the whale isn't the quest of a madman. 

Chapter 52 Quotes

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only thought numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

Another opportunity for Ishmael's musings. Many important parts of the novel are the talks (or "gams") that occur between crews of boats passing each other on the high seas. Here, the Pequod falls in line with the Albatross, which is headed back for home, and whose nearly starving, nearly mad crew marvels at the Pequod's mission to sail around the world. It is only when Ishmael sees the Albatross and its crew that he realizes, fully, the difficulty of the enterprise in which they are engaged - and the terrible things that might befall the Pequod's crew after many months at sea.

These conversations between boats serve as the "messaging system" in a novel where letters, let alone vocal messages, cannot be exchanged between characters who spend many months or years at a time on ships. When the Pequod is out on the high seas, its crew is starved for human contact, and this makes interactions with ships like the Albatross all the more valuable, even if the Albatross's crew seems half crazed. 

Chapter 71 Quotes

Think, think of thy whale-boat, stoven and sunk! Beware of the horrible tail!

Related Characters: Gabriel (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel, like Old Thunder, is another one of the novel's prophets - a person who, though seemingly a normal human, has also taken on a religious quality that enables him, or so he claims, to see into the future, and to predict events that others might not be aware of. Here, Gabriel (another Biblical name, that of a messenger angel) warns that Moby-Dick is more powerful than any man - that no one would be able to defeat the white whale alone, and that perhaps only a beneficent fate could make such a battle even something a man might be able to live through.

Thus Old Thunder and Gabriel both believe that Moby-Dick is himself a god-like figure, one whose power is so far superior to man's that there is nothing a man can do to save himself. Gabriel, like Old Thunder, urges the men around him to consider man's relationship to the divine - that God is the master of all things, and that if God has sent this whale in his stead to rule the waters, man must respect the overwhelming force of that animal. 

Chapter 99 Quotes

Cook! ho, coo! and cook us! Jenny! hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, Jenny, Jenny! and get your hoe-cake done!

Related Characters: Pip (speaker)
Page Number: 475
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, each of the characters take turns checking out the doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the center mast of the Pequod. This doubloon is reserved for the person in the crew who sights the white whale first - it is designed as an extra reward, for the crew is already as excited as Ahab, or nearly so, to find the whale and to kill it. 

When others see the doubloon, they speak their thoughts aloud in an aside to the audience, as though they were characters in a play (and, indeed, there are entire chapters of the novel that are rendered as dialogue in a play, as though Ishmael has constructed the scenes in this way for the reader better to understand them). Here, when Pip speaks aloud, however, he does not say anything comprehensible to the average listener. Instead, he remarks obliquely just how valuable the doubloon is - and how wondrous it would be to spot the whale and to kill it. 

Chapter 109 Quotes

Oh, Life! Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this block-head for a bone to stand on. Cursed be that mortal interindebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books.

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), The Pequod’s carpenter
Page Number: 514
Explanation and Analysis:

Starbuck has reported to Ahab, just before this quotation, that the oil casks in the Pequod are leaking, and that a ship's carpenter will have to inspect them to ensure that the oil collected from the whales they have already killed will be preserved. When Starbuck realizes that Ahab cares nothing for this oil - that the voyage is entirely for the purpose of capturing and killing Moby-Dick - he is afraid that the captain has lost his mind, and that he is willing to endanger his entire crew in order to satisfy this one objective. Starbuck tells Ahab that he must worry about himself, that his own bloodlust could result in the death of many men.

Ahab, for his part, recognizes in the quote that there are physical constraints on him - that if, for example, the boat were to leak and sink before reaching the white whale, then Ahab's entire mission would come to naught. This is difficult for Ahab to stomach, because his pride and his belief in his own force and mission is unmatched. 

Chapter 110 Quotes

They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Queequeg
Page Number: 523
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a very important passage, for here Queequeg echoes a sentiment that Ahab has also expressed in the novel - namely, that a man's living or dying has only to do with one's will, his choice to survive. There are some things beyond man's control, and one of those things is Moby-Dick himself, a beast so large as to be almost godlike. Queequeg and Ahab both recognize that there is some fate to those interactions, and that there is nothing they can do to stop the whale if fate determines that the whale is to defeat them.

But illness is another matter. Queequeg believes in this passage that he has total control over his own body - that he can make it listen to his wishes. This has long been a dream of man, that the mind can triumph over the earthly strictures placed on that mind by the realities of living in a body on earth. Queequeg, for his part, really believes that his own mind can conquer the weaknesses of his body. (It's also notable that while he considers illness to be something easily overcome, a murderous whale is on the same level as a storm or other "act of God.")

Chapter 133 Quotes

Men, this gold is mine, for I earned it; but I shall let it abide here till the White Whale is dead; and then, whosoever of ye first raises him, upon the day he shall be killed, this gold is that man’s, and if on that day I shall again raise him, then, ten times its sum shall be divided among all of ye! Away now!

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 602
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only does Ahab believe that he must be the man to kill Moby-Dick, and that it is fair to risk the lives of many men in order to kill the animal that (he believes) has wronged him; Ahab also vows that he was always fated to be the one to spot Moby-Dick, and that the doubloon he placed on the mast could have only one owner, and that is the man that placed it there.

In this passage, then, Melville displays Ahab's total megalomania, or belief that he, and he alone, is capable of defeating the whale, of spitting in the eyes of fate, of ensuring that order will be restored in the universe after the whale has taken his leg. No man could possibly think in these terms unless he were deluded, and yet Ahab really does think in them. And though he is single-mindedly set in his mission, he nevertheless manages, despite the metaphorical blindness of his obsession, to see the whale and to claim the money he placed before the crew.