Chapter 37 Sunset

        This chapter is a soliloquy by Captain Ahab in which he admits to himself that he is not only mad, but "madness maddened" -- a demoniac. However, it is Melville's genius as a writer to make Ahab a sympathetic character. It will be remembered that during the first twenty-one or so chapters, it was a comparison of "the noble savage" Queequeg's Paganism with cynical Yankee Christianity that was a dominant theme. At this juncture in the story, Captain Ahab has emerged, not as a Nantucket Quaker whaleman, but as a crazed, driven mystic bent on revenge, and the punishment of "inscrutable malice".

        Yet the man elicits sympathy, despite obvious paranoid delusions of persecution and grandeur. As for delusions of persecution, he makes the preposterous observation that somehow the waves are envious of the wake his ship makes through the ocean. As for delusions of grandeur, he imagines himself some kind of king -- crowned, not with a gold, but an iron crown, the "Iron Crown of Lombardy". [Note that the Iron Crown of Lombardy was worn by the so-called Holy Roman Emperors of antiquity. It was supposed to contain a nail used to crucify Christ. Melville here is showing off a bit. The use of this allusion in Ahab's soliloquy paints a picture of a surprisingly erudite and well-read whaling captain -- for one who will later describe himself simply as once a young harpooneer at age eighteen, and who has been at sea now for some forty years, with only three of those spent at home on Nantucket.]

        But as for sympathy, Ahab seems to merit it when he speaks of his weary soul. Sitting alone in his cabin, gazing out the stern window at his wake in the sunset he says, "Oh! Time was when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. All loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low power of enjoyment. Damned in the midst of Paradise!"

        Ahab is convinced that he has the crew in his pocket -- hell-bent to kill Moby Dick to satisfy their captain's quest for revenge on his dismemberer. At this point he reveals that the prophecy of the old squaw Tistig was that he would, in fact, be dismembered. Losing a leg to Moby Dick's bite fulfilled it, but Ahab vows he'll dismember that white whale! "What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do!"

        Ahab is not surprised that Starbuck rebelled, but even he is going to be driven by the captain's "one cogged circle that fits into all their various wheels." The embittered old man then challenges the gods: "I laugh and hoot at ye! Ye've knocked me down and I am up again. Come, Ahab's compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle to the iron way!"

        The story is Ahab's story now: Irresistible Ahab to meet unconquerable Moby Dick.