Ishmael opens “The Musket” with an image of the Pequod’s compass spinning in the midst of a storm, leaving the ship’s helmsman to find his way forward without any guidance at all. This image serves as a metaphor for Starbuck’s spinning moral compass when faced with the opportunity to kill Ahab in his sleep and end Ahab’s reckless quest once and for all.
Starbuck’s internal struggle also raises more abstract questions of morality and law. Starbuck feels that murdering Ahab will save the other thirty lives on board the Pequod, and so may be justified. He then observes that “I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law,” and he asks: “Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?” Of course, the law serves morality and not vice versa, and in the end Starbuck seems to understand that existing at sea, apart from civilization, does not transform a human being into an amoral force of nature.
Unfortunately for Starbuck, his choice has no clear moral imperative. Starbuck finds himself in a variation of an age-old moral dilemma — if you could save many people by sacrificing one person, should you? Is any individual entitled to be jury and executioner in the sacrifice of another human life? On the other hand, isn’t doing nothing a judgment as well, albeit a passive one, and so shouldn’t you at least make the choice that results in the fewest deaths? At the end of “The Musket,” Starbuck spares Ahab and re-shelves his musket. I can’t help but wonder, though, when Starbuck “seemed wrestling with an angel,” who was arguing for which side of the dilemma? Does Starbuck’s choice represent a regaining of his moral sense or, like the Pequod’s compass, did the storm reverse the needle’s polarity, and point him in the wrong direction?
Chapter 123: The Musket
Spinning in the storm,
An angel adored me,
Tempted my escape from every claimant,
And we’d take the open sea,
And turn it around.
A token of the war
In every arrangement
Made between a man and that which taints him —
It’s a life to overthrow,
May heaven allow.
Tell me, could it be the loss,
The stinging loss
I feel in every dream? In every
Meaning lost to waves in rugged sea?
Here I stand alone,
At opposite corners
From my only duty as I claim it —
Can I take the open sea,
And turn it around?
(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 5, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea June 26, 2010