Microcosms from a Microcosm: Various Leadership Styles in the Whale-Boats

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 Second Web Report

On Serendip


Microcosms from a Microcosm: Various Leadership Styles in the Whale-Boats

megan stegall

*****
Herman Melville's Moby Dick portrays a very specific social order aboard the whaling vessel, the Pequod, captained by Ahab and described by Ishmael, but this is not the only social order present in the book. Other boats are mentioned in histories and in the gam chapters, and of course during Ishmael's time on shore at the start of the story we observe several varieties of social interactions and pecking orders among people. About halfway through the book, in Chapter 48, The First Lowering, we first see the three mates of the Pequod, that is Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, captaining their own individual whale-boats, and a whole new set of social orders comes in. The question of why the men aboard the ship follow "crazy Ahab" or why they behave the way they do can be (and is) debated endlessly, but perhaps it is also illuminating to look at how the three mates lead their boats and how the men in their respective crews respond to this new leadership.

*****
In Chapter 48, after meeting Fedallah and his "tiger-yellow (181)" crew, we find ourselves in a whale-boat on the sea with Flask. He is upbeat and excited, and speaks directly to his oarsmen, specifically Archy (181). His language is positive and designed to motivate his men: "... cheerily cried little King-Post... 'Lay back!' addressing his crew... 'Never heed yonder yellow boys, Archy' (181)." He exhorts his crew to pull hard on their oars (hence, lay back), but what sets him apart from the other boat-leaders is his emphasis on the whales themselves. A little later, Flask says "...beach me on their black backs, boys... (185)" and promises his men his own fortune and family if they can do it. Of him, Melville next writes "the repeated specific allusions of Flask to 'that whale,' ... were at times so vivid and life-like they would cause some one or two of his men to snatch a fearful look over the shoulder (186)." What also defines Flask as a leader is his literal and metaphorical need to climb as high as possible for a better vantage point in the boat. He gets as far up as the shoulders of his massive harpooner, Daggoo, and even says "only I wish you were fifty feet taller (184)" to emphasize his need to get the best possible view of the whales. Flask, who is "vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious (184)" and small, raises himself up to focus not only his own eyes but also his energy, his commands, and his rowers' efforts directly on the path of the whales. He is almost Ahabian in this "monomaniacal" pursuit of the whales, but without the obvious frenetic inner conflict or permanent state of tunnel-vision that mark Ahab.

*****
The next mate we see addressing his crew is Stubb, with a drastically different approach to the business at hand. He calls his rowers all sorts of things: "...my fine hearts-alive... my children... my little ones... my boys... my heroes... you rascals... you dogs... ye ragamuffin rapscallions... (181, 182)" and more. Stubb continuously but "drawlingly and soothingly (181)" tells his rowers what to do, alternating between encouraging them and insulting them. Every few lines he mentions something else, like the mysterious fourth crew, or the sperm-oil which is their ultimate goal, or the White Whale himself (182, 183). Melville calls Stubb's technique "peculiar (182)" and says that he makes use of the "religion of rowing (183)." The truly peculiar thing about Stubb, he says, is the tone he uses when talking to his crew. He is so relaxed, it seems, and contrary to the very things he says, that "... no oarsman could hear such queer invocations without pulling for dear life, and yet pulling for the mere joke of the thing (182)." Stubb, as a leader, is relaxed and unusual; he commands incessantly but in such a way that it never gets old to the ears of the rowers, and so that one apparently cannot help obeying him. It seems that this is characteristic of Stubb generally: "...as to put all inferiors on their guard in the matter of obeying him (183)." Stubb speaks briefly to Starbuck, without losing control of his crew, and later talks to them about Flask, which would distract a rower under anyone else's command; however, Stubb follows up his comments with a characteristically bizarre segue back into rowing-talk by saying "Pudding for supper, you know; merry's the word. Pull, babes pull, sucklings pull, all (185)" and manages to keep their focus and their bodily exertion up.

*****
Next and in several places we encounter Starbuck, whispering intensely to his boat-crew. When Stubb addresses him (182), Starbuck responds but never turns around, intersecting exhortations to his crew between his comments and replies to Stubb. His whispers are even put in parentheses, to make them stand out as very personal for his rowers: "'Smuggled on board, somehow, before the ship sailed. (Strong, strong, boys!)' in a whisper to his crew, then speaking out loud again (183)." Some of his comments sound like some of Stubb's, especially the way he calls his rowers "my boys... my lads... (183)" and the like, but his style is vastly different. He is fixed in purpose, like Flask, but focused, it seems, entirely on his men, more like Stubb. He speaks of the purpose of the lowering, of course (183), but most of his words are just to make the rowers go. Starbuck speaks "in the lowest possible but intensest concentrated whisper to his men, (185)" and keeps his eyes fixed determinedly on the whales ahead, his whispers "... now harsh with command, now soft with entreaty (185)." Interestingly, he is portrayed visually as being perfectly level, "coolly and adroitly balancing himself (184)" despite the hard work, the rough water, and the jolting movement of a boat being rowed. Starbuck, however, leads his crew directly into the squall in pursuit of the whales, saying "there is time to kill a fish yet... Spring! (186)" His men respond exactly to him, driving themselves straight into the storm. Queequeg, as Starbuck's harpooneer, obeys his commands precisely and immediately, and very nearly kills a whale because of it (187). It seems odd, perhaps, that the leader most obviously balanced physically in the boat and verbally, between Stubb's queer soliloquizing and Flask's whale-fixation is the one who drives straight and fast into the squall with no thought for safety. He does, however, light the lantern once his men are collected back in the boat (187); perhaps Starbuck plows on ahead like Ahab and then sets himself apart, not by his foresight or his regard for his men's lives going into battle, but by his return to hope in the will to survive: "... holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty darkness (187)."

*****
Of Ahab's leadership in his whale-boat, all we know is that we are not to know of it, as we "live under the light of the blessed light of the evangelical land (186)" and should not be subjected to such language by Melville. All we can infer is that Ahab drove his crew on with no thought but killing the whale and without the kind of speech his mates used, and that his men plowed through the water with his same determination and maniacal desperation. In this chapter we cannot directly contrast Ahab's leadership to that of his mates, because we do not get to hear him speak we merely see him balancing solidly on his real and peg-leg, "with one arm, like a fencer's, thrown half backward into the air (183)" to steer his boat the way he has done thousands of times before. His rowers are described simply as strong, fast and efficient "...how potent a crew was pulling him...like five trip-hammers... with regular strokes of strength (183)."

*****
So within the strata of the Pequod, we have leaders and the men who follow them, and each leader distinguishes himself from the others by his words and actions. Ahab is characteristic with his surprising appearance, not to mention balance in single-minded pursuit, and by the very lack of words we get from him. Flask is also focused on the whales, but he is set apart by his bodily raising himself for a better view, and by his excited encouragements and commands. Stubb is the "peculiar" one, mixing a bizarrely relaxed and funny tone of voice with constant and commanding words, making his statements effectively uncomfortable for his men. Starbuck bridges between the other two, focused both on the whales and on his men; he urges them in a low, intense voice straight into a squall and danger. All four whale-boat captains are obeyed implicitly, and all the crews are deeply engaged in the task at hand as presented to them by their leaders, but I would say that Starbuck's leadership is the most effective and frightening, since he drives his men into an extra-dangerous situation; not only are they chasing deadly sperm whales, but they run into a squall in pursuit. Starbuck further distinguishes himself as a leader by not losing any of his men and by lighting the lantern that gets them saved eventually. He displays some of the craziness and monomania of Ahab, but unlike his captain, Starbuck remembers his men as people whose lives are worth something and, in the end, treats them as such.

*****
Citations from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Norton Critical (Second) Edition, 2002


| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT