The Puzzle of Starbuck

June 21, 2021
Red-black ink (Vision Elite pen) and watercolor in a Hahnemühle Watercolor sketchbook.

Update: If you would like to see me sketch and paint this portrait it’s an extra August 2021 demo posted August 15, on my Patreon site—available to Tier 2 and Tier 3 subscribers.


Look, I’ve read Melville’s “Moby Dick” three times in  my life—I’m not about to read it again. But that doesn’t mean I stop thinking about it.

Growing up all I could think about was Queequeg, his coffin, his ability to see what was coming, sort of.

Lately I can’t stop thinking about another character: Starbuck. Couldn’t he really have stopped all this mayhem?

He’s the first mate of the Pequod. We know he’s a Quaker, a family man, and we know he even entertains mutiny when Ahab’s obsession takes over.

But that isn’t enough for me. Why did Melville make Starbuck a Quaker? Why was whaling a viable profession for Quakers? (I would have thought it didn’t meet the non-violence test for “innocent professions.”) 

What about stewardship? Starbuck makes the argument that the crew needs to stick on task and bring back oil, but did he really push this enough?

Is the fact that Starbuck is Quaker even important beyond the possibility of Melville having known Quakers? Or is it significant as an example of the inability of a man of morality and conscience to hold out against dangerous, insane obsession?  

Some critics say that “Moby Dick” is an indictment of “self-reliance” and “Transcendentalism,” but isn’t it worse to standby, apart from your moral precepts?

Of all the characters of literature on whose behavior so much hinged, surely none cry out for a prequel as loudly as Starbuck does. 

But some receipt books cannot be reconciled. Melville knew that well.

I think there was a demon in Melville’s memory; something he needed to exorcize. Something seen and lived. Something of conscience. Something impotent. 

I don’t think it was a coincidence he died writing “Billy Budd.”

My History With Moby Dick

I first read “Moby Dick” as a child. I think I read it in part because I loved 19th century literature at an early age. But I think I read it more because it was an American book, and to some, “the” American book. Oceans away from my own country I sought books which told me something about that country throughout history. 

I didn’t read “Moby Dick” again until I was an undergraduate at University. I read it quickly, a thing of great length, to be gotten through. A task. Life was moving very quickly and I didn’t feel I had time to even think about the book. There were 20 other books on the desk I needed to read for the first time, waiting for me. 

In graduate school I read “Moby Dick” for the third time. I read it with great sadness. I thought more about loss of life. I thought more about a character’s motivations. I thought more about whether or not Melville was conscious of putting into his book all that scholars were quick to say he was putting in.

Where is the line between living life and scholarship and artistic intention? I wondered. 

Detail view of the red-black ink and the watercolor washes.

When I started dating Dick I encouraged him to read the book. He hadn’t read much literature at all. I thought it would give us something to talk about, no, I thought it would give me a way to profile him, based on his reactions. It did. He put the book down after about 70 pages and I had to profile the old fashion way, with observation.

I still wonder about Melville’s intentions in writing “Moby Dick.” But mostly I think about Starbuck.

Because Starbuck couldn’t stand up to Ahab Starbuck and the crew were lost. I put it on Starbuck’s shoulders.  

    • Georgy
    • June 21, 2021

    YOU are So Interesting. I can’t thank you enough for all the ways you share . . . reach out to us/me . . . offer what and who you are with such generosity . . .

    Sending Thanks & happy smiles 💙

    1. Reply

      Georgy, so glad you enjoyed this post! Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Reply

    Very interesting thoughts. I have never read “Moby Dick”, but now I think I should. A prequel would be great! I’ve spent some time on Cape Cod, and was intriqued to see so many Quaker references. Quakers were not well-received by the Puritans when emigrating to Massachusetts and many fled to Cape Cod (when there wasn’t a bridge or two) to escape persecution by the Puritans and others. There are still active Quaker meetinghouses there. As for Quakers and whaling, I have heard that they were very good in business and financial matters, and so it seems logical that they might follow a proven way of making money. I found this article which you might find interesting. You might like “In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick about the whaleship Essex. The book, NOT the movie (which is terrible).

    1. Reply

      I knew from other research that Starbuck was a Quaker family name involved in whaling and I’ll read that link you sent, but I really am having trouble seeing whaling as fitting into the “innocent trades.” They were big in chocolate and some other trades that were deemed not harmful. I guess that’s my residual 20th-21st century mindset towards animals.

      I’ve seen ads for both the book and the movie about the Essex. I’ll see if I can find some book excerpts to see if I like where he’s going but whaling doesn’t interest me in the way Melville does.

      For me “Moby Dick” remains a book about communities and governance and mania. Something we have all too much of these days, and which the book shows us the real dangers of.

      There’s a thread of this and the individual’s responsibility running through Melville’s other works. He’s always reaching for something philosophical but he’s also one of the most out-of-sorts writers the U.S. has produced. It would probably take a life time for me to follow all the threads and I’m off to other thoughts.

    • Sharon+Nolfi
    • June 23, 2021

    I enjoyed this post very much! I haven’t read Moby Dick in decades, but now you’ve got me wondering about Starbuck. I’ll have to reread at least parts of the novel before I can comment further. Please share more thoughts on literature.

    1. Reply

      Glad you found this interesting. (By the way, I don’t know why your comment didn’t post right away as you have posted in the past. It might be that you’re using a new email.) I appreciate your comments.

        • Sharon+Nolfi
        • June 24, 2021

        Not using new email. I tried posting this at least 3 times, but it wouldn’t show up, even after I refreshed the page. I now see it here a day later. Weird.

          • Sharon+Nolfi
          • June 24, 2021

          OK. This particular reply showed up immediately, so yesterday’s problem seems fixed.

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