In Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, a defiant and obsessive Captain Ahab drives the plot in desperate search of the creature that maimed him forever. In his mind’s eye, this hulking mammal, the great white whale by the name of Moby Dick, has taken something away from him that he can never get back. However, Ahab is after more than the physical part of himself that he lost in the form of his leg, but instead Moby Dick has seemingly stolen his power. By this, I do not mean that Ahab’s leg is his power, but instead the fact that a dumb brute has the ability to seemingly destroy his life. What it comes down to is whom, or what, holds the power.
It may be a bit presumptuous to say, but I feel that Ahab, at least on a subconscious level, wants to be God. While it’s true that Ahab not only questions God, but seems to hate him, I do not feel this excludes him from the thirst of power that only God (or any other deity) may possess. The hatred for God that Ahab expresses throughout the novel doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to be him, for extremely jealously is enough to cause hatred.
James. W. Tuttleton, author of The Character of Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, explains that Ahab “suffers a psychotic mental inversion according to which light becomes darkness, white becomes black, and God becomes the devil. Hence his hatred of whiteness and the white whale. His God having maimed his true servant, Ahabnow pits himself against the divine, and he opposes to this evil deity his own regal personality.”
His own hatred for what he thinks hurt him is what he wants to become, or at least possess the power of, even though he may not realize it. Through the novel, he outwardly and blasphemously speaks against the Christian God, yet he compares himself to him many times.
This longing for god-like power is a fatal flaw in Ahab’s character. I do not feel he was necessarily born with it, although the desire for power does seem to be a human characteristic. It seems as though Moby Dick, the great white whale, awakened this hunger for God-power when he ate Ahab’s leg and in a sense, rendered him powerless.
This loss of power drove him insane, which seems to only have heightened his personal designation of superiority.
Paul McCarthy, author of The Twisted Mind” : Madness in Herman Melville’s Fiction, says that the, “Tragic dimensions of the “final monomania” take final shape as Ahab draws upon disappointments in early years, the deepening troubles of middle years, or second stage, to regard the whale at last as “the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down”. Conceived in terms of evil, God, a whale and a whaling captain, Ahab’s delusion is created by a mind both coldly sane and furiously mad.”
In Moby Dick, the very novel itself, Ahab is sometimes described as god-like. Captain Peleg once said to Ishmael, “He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen.”
Captain Peleg said this when Ishmael was in the process of boarding the whaling ship. Ishmael had not yet met the captain, nor had the readers, and this is the first impression that we, and Ishmael, get of Captain Ahab. This first impression of him being both god-like and ungodly is important in his portrayal of character throughout the rest of the novel.
Mark Edelman Boren, author of What’s Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby Dick said that because Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg for his own trophy, then Ahab has no other choice than to hunt him down in the logic of existence. Boren makes the point that not only was his leg taken, but “it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat”.
He said that Moby Dick and Ahab are “tethered by a logic of consumption” and therefore Ahab must pursue him because the whale has gained power of Ahab since he’d eaten his leg. As a result, Ahab also has a bit of power over Moby Dick because he has marked him with his own weapons.
This signals a huge power struggle, at least in Ahab’s mind. To Ahab, going on with his life and letting Moby Dick live is thought of as giving up power to the white whale. As someone wanting to behold the power of God, letting the white whale win the battle is simply an unacceptable option.
Because of this loss of power to the great white whale in which he sees as evil, he in turn attempts to regain power from his crew. In the novel, he said, “There is one God this is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod.-On deck!”
Here, he himself compares the fact that he is captain to being God, Lord over the Earth.
Tuttleton, author of The Character of Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, said that Melville establishes Ahab’s superiority in several ways throughout the novel. First of all, he names Ahab after a biblical king, and points out that in the novel it says that the king of the deck sits on a “throne” and also that at one point the crew are also referred to as “knights”.
Ishmael even comments in the novel, “How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.”
Again, in the crewmen’s eyes, “Yet, somehow, did Ahab—in his own proper self, as daily, hourly, and every instant, commandingly revealed to his subordinates,–Ahab seemed an independent lord; the Parsee but his slave. Still agisn both seemed yoked together, and an unseen tyrant driving them, the lean shade siding the solid rib.”
In scenes such as these, Melville deliberately placed Ahab in the situation to appear as king or lord in Ishmael’s, and other crewmen’s, eyes. It reaffirms that the novel has already pointed him out to be the absolute leader of the ship, but takes it to a further level to symbolize the extent of the hunger for power.
Tuttleton then goes on to say that because power corrupts, and absolute power is absolutely corrupting, it would seem to be especially true among a ship in which the captain has absolute command. There are cases in which Ahab goes to great lengths to separate himself from his crew and shipmates and holds himself above the others.
Case in point, Ismael says in the novel, “Lord and master over all this scene, the captain stood erect on the ship’s elevated quarter-deck, so that the whole rejoicing drama was full before him, and seemed merely contrived for his own individual diversion.”
In that scene, Ahab held him above others and distanced himself from their actions and drama as though he were a superior being beyond just being the captain. He looked down upon them as though he could have created them their lowly struggles, which is just what he did when he first pushed his quest of personal revenge upon them.
The crew, in response to his air of superiority and vengeance, feared him. In the novel, Ishmael, as the narrator, said, “The sailors, mostly poor devils, cringed, and some of them fawned before him; in obedience to his instructions, sometimes rendering him personal homage, as to a god.”
It seems as though Ahab, at least in the sense of the ship symbolizing the world, did have absolute power. As for the minority who may have been untainted by his god-like countenance, they were simply disbelievers of his power, just as some may feel of the Christian God.
In the novel, it is also said, “As for the men, though some of them lowly rumbled, their fear of Ahab was greater than their fear of Fate.”
Again, this is a comparison to God, for pious men and believers fear their deity as much or worse than fate itself, for their deity holds their fate.
Tuttleton says, “That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship…For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.”
Tuttleton is simply explaining how a tragic event such as becoming dismembered by a whale will evoke such feelings, such as the jealousy of God or the lust for the power of a supreme being.
The Old Testament God is known for spiteful smiting, which is a trait shown here by Ahab himself when he said about Moby Dick, “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
In Ahab and the Glamour of Evil:A Burkean Reading of Ritual in Moby Dick, author Jeff Todd states that the act of Ahab making his crew act out his revenge against the great white whale is a way of binding them to him and his quest. He says, “The glamour of Ahab’srhetorical appeals makes the men ready to subordinate their wills to the will of the institution–their captain.”
I can’t help but make a parallel between that statement and the many wars that are fought over religion. It seems that if it’s God’s will for a quest to be fulfilled, then so it. It works the same way for Ahab. He even says in the novel, “”What I’ve dared, I’ve willed, and what I’ve willed, I’ll do.” As a mere mortal, it is arrogant for one to honestly believe and apply that to every feat they attempt, but as God, it is quite fitting.
Boren from What’s Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby Dick reminds the readers that Ahab’s actions are “reasonably interpreted as the actions of a monomaniacal, melancholic, madman”. Although what his insanity is based can come into question by the readers, I feel that again, it call comes down to power.
During Ahab’s crazed fit in search of the whale, he destroys the ship’s compass because he suddenly feels he can do it on his own. Although they do end up meeting with Moby Dick anyhow, Ahab demonstrated an extreme arrogance in his ability as captain and even possibly as a human.
In “Melville, Shame, and the Evil Eye : A Psychoanalytic Reading, author Joseph Adamson said that Ahab has a need to vindicate because of his defensive reactions to shameful feelings, as well as his “sense of unconquerable power, the feeling that he is omnipotent and infallible…Ahab is driven by the all-consuming need to overpower and defeat his enemy no matter what the cost.”
This is interesting because Ahab sees Moby Dick as the very embodiment of evil. In Christianity, the very embodiment of evil is Satan, and so there’s a parallel between Satan and Moby Dick, along with Ahab trying to defeat Moby Dick (God vs. Satan).
In the end of the novel, Ahab perishes, as does the rest of the crew, with exception of Ishmael. One might argue that perhaps Ahab honestly did believe he was infallible, or at least desire to be, would he have went to the lengths that he did? Of course, he might have, but in the manner that he did so and by being responsible for the death of his crew, he took on an embodiment of belief of something higher. Perhaps Ahab said it best himself when he asked, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”
Adamson, Joseph. Melville, Shame, and the Evil Eye : A Psychoanalytic Reading. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Boren, Mark Edelman. “What’s Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick.” Style 34.1 (2000): 1-3.
McCarthy, Paul. “The Twisted Mind” : Madness in Herman Melville’s Fiction. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.
Todd, Jeff. “Ahab and the glamour of evil: A Burkean reading of ritual in Moby Dick.” Papers on Language & Literature 33.1 (1997): 3-8.
Tuttleton, James W. . “The character of Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick.” World and I 13.2 (1998): 290-295.