Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Chapter 33 Summary & Analysis

Ishmael begins this short chapter by stating that whale-boats are different from other ships, in that they used to have two head officers—a captain and a specksnyder, or chief harpooneer. This office is now collapsed into that of the captain, but Ishmael points to the position of the specksnyder as an indication of the importance of the “harpooneer class” on a ship, and the centrality of the actual lancing of whales to the whaler’s life. Ishmael then discusses, briefly, the nature of Ahab’s particular grandeur. He is clearly a captain who delights in his “sultanism,” or his dictatorship of the vessel. But Ishmael notes that this dictatorship does not manifest itself outwardly, in bright, fancy clothing, or in a noble bearing. Rather, Ishmael hints that Ahab will demonstrate his harshness, cruelty, and ultimately royal nature only later on, when the fight with the whale commences.
The comparison of Ahab to a “sultan” is an intriguing one. For Ahab’s crew, the “tiger crew” that accompanies him on the whale-boat, is comprised entirely of men from Asia, and there is, indeed, a certain “orientalism” Ishmael associates with the captain of the vessel. Perhaps this has to do with the central mystery of Ahab—the fact that no one can explain why Ahab is so desirous of killing Moby Dick, above all other whales. For the east was, to people in Ishmael’s time, a place of strange passions, of intense desires, and of mysteries that might not necessarily be sensible to men of “reason,” in the west. The title also captures that the mysteries of Ahab give him a power over the ship and the men on it—that he rules completely.
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