Symbolism of Starbuck in Moby-Dick

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Starbuck, as the first mate of the Pequod, is one of the major characters in Melville's 'Moby-Dick'. As a reasonable and religious character, he stands in stark contrast to the obsessive Captain Ahab. This lesson discusses the ways that Starbuck symbolizes the rational part of the human psyche.

Character Summary

Starbuck is the first mate of the Pequod, and operates as the voice of reason aboard the ship. He is a Quaker, and periodically brings up a religious perspective in some of the arguments that take place on the Pequod's journey. As far as his personality goes, Starbuck is reasonable, thoughtful, and has a healthy respect for the dangers of whaling and the dangers posed by whales themselves. This casts him as a nearly polar opposite to Captain Ahab, who rarely shows much sign of reason, and wants only to seek revenge against the White Whale, who cost him his leg so many years ago.

Starbuck and Ahab

Because of their very different personalities, Starbuck and Ahab often find themselves on opposite sides of arguments on their journey. For example, in Chapter 36, when Ahab is shouting about his desire for revenge, Starbuck counters with, 'Vengeance on a dumb brute!...Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.' Starbuck finds Ahab's longing for revenge to be both insane and against the order of nature. In Starbuck's view, God did not create animals to be capable of the thought and evil intent that Ahab ascribes to Moby Dick.

Starbuck's Temptation

Towards the end of Moby-Dick, as the Pequod gets closer and closer to the White Whale, the relationship between Ahab and Starbuck becomes quite tense. Ahab has demonstrated that he will not listen to reason, and it has become clear to Starbuck, if not to everyone else yet, that Ahab's madness is likely to lead to the deaths of many of the crew. In Chapter 123, Starbuck considers killing Ahab in an attempt to save everyone else:

'A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again. -Oh Mary! Mary! -boy! boy! boy! -But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's boyd this day week may sink, with all the crew! Great God, where are Thou? Shall I? shall I?'

Starbuck's Goodness Wins Out

Perhaps it is ironic that Starbuck's basic decency will not allow him to kill Captain Ahab, who is permitted to continue on his mission which will ultimately kill everyone on board except Ishmael. As tempted as Starbuck is to see his family again, he is able to rein in his temptation in a way that Ahab is not.

Starbuck as a Symbol of Man's Reasonable Side

Given their different personalities and levels of self-control, Ahab and Starbuck symbolize different levels of the human psyche, or soul. When we say that they act as symbols, this means that, while Ahab and Starbuck are both actual characters in the novel, they also represent other ideas - in this case, parts of the human psyche. Ahab represents man's emotional side, and Starbuck represents man's reasonable side.

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