One of the fun things for me about re-reading and teaching Moby-Dick is that I’m always noticing new things in the text. This propensity can be dangerous if you’re lecturing, because you turn to one page, notice something interesting on the facing page, and risk veering off onto a tangent. On the other hand, some of my best insights have come off-the-cuff while riding the wave of one of the tangents.
The thing I usually say about the chapter “Enter Ahab; To Him Stubb” is that, since Ahab has actually “entered” the foreground of the text in the previous chapter, the title isn’t descriptive so much as suggestive: of stage directions, preparing the way for the tangent into drama that the text will take in a few chapters. Today, though, I’m intrigued by what seems to be a description of Ahab’s claustrophobia:
“Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck. It was so with Ahab; only that now, of late, he seemed so much to live in the open air, that truly speaking, his visits were more to the cabin, than from, the cabin to the planks. “It feels like going down into one’s tomb,” — he would mutter to himself, — “for an old captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my grave-dug berth.”
Confinement of any kind is anathema to Ahab, who will declare in a crucial moment that’s coming soon, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”
In this chapter, Ahab’s restlessness is depicted as an effect of his age, perhaps the sense that this voyage is his last chance to find the whale