Starbuck: The Tragedy of a “Valour-Ruined Man” Affecting the Whole

One of my favorite things about literature is its ability for us to examine not only society, but ourselves. There is a reason why philosophers and religious leaders have utilized the power of the parable over the many generations. The story is a thing interpretive as well as interpreted. Lately, I have been musing over the influence and evidence of courage, virtue, and integrity in my day-to-day interactions. I am constantly astounded at how mean and callous we are becoming as a culture, most likely because when I make the mistake of reading the comments section of even reputable news articles, the vitriol and anger in what is supposed to be civil and social conversation is mind-boggling. Social psychologists and scientists can speak to this better than I.

I guess I could shrug it off if the “mean” only lived on the internet, but what is the internet if not an extension of our public sphere? What we dare to say online is how we dare to think and behave in reality. And words, as we know, hurt. They shape attitudes, that become norms, that become mores. But I like to think that there are more people who are willing to stand up for the goodness in ourselves and in society than knock it down. And hence reflections on the virtues, and the one most necessary in a sea of anonymous tirades, anger, or plain ignorance: courage.

In his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Harold Bloom feels “The play’s subject […] is neither mourning for the dead or revenge on the living […] All that matters is Hamlet’s consciousness of his own consciousness, infinite, unlimited and at war with itself” (French). Bloom goes onto explicate the play’s subject and protagonist by describing the exhaustive energies and confrontations of the inner-self that take place in outwardly manifestations, with this final conclusion: “For Hamlet himself, death is not tragic but an apotheosis” (French). Given Bloom’s interpretation, one can see nuances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Melville’s Captain Ahab. Certainly, there are stark differences; Ahab is obsessed and myopic in his quest for revenge upon the living Moby Dick. Whereas it is nearly universally accepted that Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his inability to take decisive action, Ahab is singular in his purpose and all actions are devoted to his one goal of revenge. Even so, Melville does provide the reader with many passages of Ahab’s inner-reflections and possible regrets upon his seemingly fated course (a consciousness “unlimited and at war with itself”). Most analogous between the two characters is their search for Death, it’s confrontation a moment almost imbued with divine meaning – arguably each man’s life purpose.

Both Hamlet and Moby-Dick, via thematic scope and revelation of other characters’ motives and inner-workings, allow us to expand upon the traditional Greek tragic arch by witnessing the personal tragedies of key characters alongside the one projected by the protagonist/tragic hero. By exposing the tragic flaws of the supporting characters, an interconnected tragedy is created. We see this with Hamlet’s Ophelia or Polonius, for instance. Melville presents the reader with supporting tragic figures in the characters of Pip and Starbuck. Indeed, it may be Starbuck and not Ahab who has more in common with the Danish prince, if one were only to match characters by their tragic flaws. Starbuck’s narrative isn’t a tragedy because he is a casualty of Ahab’s vengeful pride, but precisely because he allows himself to be its victim. In giving away his will, and refusing to take personal responsibility and action when needed, he not only seals his own fate, but that of everyone aboard the Pequod. His flaw is his lack of courage to act when action is required, and not merely expected.

When Ishmael first introduces us to Starbuck, he spends some time describing the first mate’s attitude towards the concept of bravery and courage. “Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions” (102). The words “useful” and “practical” are the ones most telling of Starbuck’s world-view. The rational, logical, practical man is the foil to Ahab’s irrational, illogical, impractical mania. If courage, as Ishmael suggests in his analogy, is nothing more than another tool in Starbuck’s whaling chest, one could conclude it is not a trait innately connected to his inner-being. Ishmael is clear and forthright when he states, “in him courage was not a sentiment [emphasis added; “sentiment” can just as readily mean “character trait”].” Note Ishmael uses precise wording when describing Starbuck’s relationship with courage. He does not say “for him,” which could imply the concept of courage as an emotion that is given, comes and goes. No; he uses “in,” establishing that courage isn’t an outer entity but a trait developed by the individual and only accessible to the individual who posses the trait.
In fact, the word most often ascribed to Starbuck is brave, not courage, the subtle difference between the two exposing his flaw. A person who is “brave,” an adjective, demonstrates the appearance or display of what could be deemed a courageous act. Hence Starbuck’s practical bravery. His line of work – navigating the sea and wind, killing a whale, fighting off sharks, etc. – demands he cast fear aside in that mortal moment. It is more of an instinctual bravery, the “fight or flight” preservation mechanism kicking into gear. A person with “courage,” a noun, implies a character trait that can be tested at any moment. A courageous man is courageous in those moments when his integrity is called into question, even if the only one posing the question is himself. Courage demands the emotional and mental fortitude to act upon one’s convictions. Courage is a word of action, bravery one of reaction.

Lest anyone feel I am judging Starbuck too harshly, remember that if Starbuck were not an influencing and key figure within a tragic narrative, his practical bravery and logical reasoning would be more than enough to establish him as a commendable character. In fact, he is the ideal first mate – prudent and steady, knowing his obligation to the work for which he was hired. Starbuck isn’t a “bad” man, nor is he a villain (though, as Ahab is always aware, can be the one obstacle in his vengeful plan). He is a sympathetic character, especially in that pivotal chapter, “The Symphony,” where we come to learn of Ahab’s inner-struggle and Starbuck’s true desire to remain an earnest and loyal friend by attempting to steer Ahab from his mad course. Knowing that he is actually an upright, stalwart man, who aims to lead an integrous life, is what makes his tragedy so poignant.

Starbuck’s personal tragedy is foreshadowed when Ishmael describes Starbuck’s particular kind of bravery. “And brave as he might be, it was that sort of bravery, chiefly visible in some intrepid men, which while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, […] yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because more spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man” (103). Eighty-three chapters later, in “Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin,” we witness Starbuck confronting Ahab’s enraged and concentrating brow. It is here where we see a glimpse of his faltering courage, and his integrity first challenged. Arguing over the best course of action regarding caskets of leaky oil, Starbuck intent upon fulfilling his obligation to the ship owners, he attempts to stand up against Ahab’s angry disregard. And yet, it is a “daring so strangely respectful and cautious that it almost seemed not only every way seeking to avoid the slightest outward manifestation of itself, but within also seemed more than half distrustful of itself” (362). This half distrustful sentiment towards his own daring sets the stage and alerts us to the impending fall in Starbuck’s tragedy. If he were courageous, he would have the commitment to speak-up to Ahab without mistrusting or doubting himself. It is for this reason, when Starbuck returns to the ship deck, Ahab murmurs, “He waxes brave, but nevertheless obeys; most careful bravery that!” (362). In attempting bravery but lacking the courage to remain committed to his conviction (that he, Ahab, and the entire ship are beholden to others), he betrays some personal integrity.

The tragedy for Starbuck, the “valor – ruined man” (103), occurs in the brief but intense chapter, “The Musket.” What begins as another chore to his day – waking Ahab to report the effects of the storm – turns into a near existential crisis for the first mate. Noticing the musket that had been leveled at him when he and Ahab argued over the Pequod’s mission, the thought to permanently redirect the Pequod’s course entered his mind. He rationalizes the very real peril Ahab is to the crew: “I come to report a fair wind to him. But how fair? Fair for death and doom, — that’s fair for Moby Dick. It’s a fair wind that’s only fair for that accursed fish […] he would have killed me with the very thing I handle now. – Aye and he would fain kill all his crew” (387). However, justifying reasons to remove Ahab as captain, the question between what is lawful and what is just looms most heavily upon the “honest and upright man” (386). “Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest […] Aye, and say’st the men have vow’d they vow; say’st all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid! — But is there no other way? No lawful way?” (387). The great conflict upon Starbuck is whether to adhere to moral or legal action. When he exclaims “Great God forbid!” it is out of fear in being cast in the same maniacal, vengeful, blasphemous mien as Ahab. To be Ahab, and follow Ahab’s course, would be damaging to Starbuck’s soul – his inner-life of more worth than the outer legal and public life. His integrity hangs on the balance. But the time to act, his courage, passes when Ahab shouts in his sleep. “The yet leveled musket shook like a drunkard’s arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place” (388).

“The Musket” chapter ends on a sad, despondent note. True, Starbuck did not commit murder, but neither could he fully commit to himself or his principles. Courage giving way to indecisiveness, his integrity fails and what valor he had is lost. Because of this, he and everyone aboard the Pequod will also lose their lives. Starbuck’s lack of courage, more than Ahab’s obsessive pursuit and vengeful drive, is what brings down the tragedy upon them all. This may seem a bold statement, but “The Needle,” the chapter immediately following Starbuck’s failing courage and loss of personal valor and integrity is the epilogue to Starbuck’s inaction we see in “The Musket.” Literally discussing the compass needle having lost its magnetism, and thus steering the ship in the wrong direction, it figuratively explores the Pequod’s moral and ethical loss. “But in either case, the needle never again, of itself, recovers the original virtue thus marred or lost; and if the binnacle compasses be affected, the same fate reaches all the others that may be in the ship” (389). Time and again, Starbuck’s moral sense and high code of personal integrity is juxtaposed against that of other Christian characters, and the supposed leader, Ahab. His sense of duty is his source of conflict with the ship’s captain. In a subtle way, Starbuck is the moral center, or compass, of the Pequod. When Starbuck’s valor fails, so does his virtue. It is a loss he cannot recover. Consequently, any hope for deliverance the crew may have had – unbeknown to them, of course – dies with Starbuck’s tarnished virtue.

The final blow to nail the mate’s and crew’s tragedy closed is in Starbuck’s last act of careful bravery. As Ahab is about to strike the needle and forge a new compass, all “fascinated eyes […] awaited whatever magic might follow. But Starbuck looked away” (390). Looking away is Starbuck’s act of futile resistance. It may also be an act of shame and reconciliation with his fate, knowing he had the opportunity to be courageous but would not act upon it when the time to act presented itself. Perhaps we can call Starbuck’s fall from valor and virtue a tragedy because it is the tragedy we are most likely to face ourselves – in the real or virtual world. Ahab’s myopic vengeance and tyrannous pride is extreme and rare. But the courage to maintain one’s integrity when faced with a fearful and difficult choice is a far more likely possibility. And perhaps this is why, when Starbuck looks away, so do we, for “[t]hat immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within ourselves, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man” (103).

Works Cited

French, Yvonne. “Harold Bloom Interprets “Hamlet”Author Discusses Shakespeare Classic at Library.” Review. Web log post. Harold Bloom Interprets “Hamlet” (May 2003). Library of Congress, May 2003. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.