1. Why is Ahab’s behavior so extreme?
In terms of psychology, one could find terms for his inflexible and self-destructive tendencies, such as “obsessive-compulsive.” Ahab is consistently called mad, even by himself. This happened to him after the great shock of losing his leg to Moby Dick. Yet we are shown Captain Boomer by contrast, who still retains his sanity after losing an arm to the whale. Ahab has no desire to be healed from his hurt.
Ahab has extraordinary sympathies, intelligence, and spiritual awareness. He is “ungodly, godlike” (16, 79). The shock of the accident affected his very soul: “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad” (41. 180). Madness in much literature, and even in certain cultures, is a sign that one has been touched by the supernatural. Pip and Ahab share this spiritual madness, the inability to communicate or operate in the ordinary world, after having been opened up to a vision of the naked cosmos. Ahab thus belongs to a certain tradition of tragic heroes who are great in soul but, through some fatal accident or flaw, are unbalanced. This includes Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Milton’s Satan, Faust, and any number of Romantic heroes from Byron’s Manfred and Hawthorne’s Dimsdale to Tennyson’s Arthur.
In a realistic sense, such heroes could be called demented, hypocritical, or abusive, but because they dare to operate in the mythic realm of the gods, there are other dimensions to consider. Ahab utters poetic and philosophic truths; he challenges the power of the universe to reveal itself. He resides in a rarified atmosphere few can enter, and the crew feels it. They are in awe of him. Ahab seems to have a higher purpose; he can make even reluctant men follow him, for the virtuous and sober Starbuck gives in at last to his will.
Ahab seems to have supernatural powers, “a crucifixion in his face” (28. 121). He is not afraid of the typhoon, but pilots the boat through the storm with full sail. He uses the St. Elmo’s fire on his harpoon as proof he is not harmed by the elements. He drives himself, for though he has one leg, he is first to the crow’s nest or whale boat. Yet he is compared to the god Prometheus whose heart was eaten out by an eagle: “a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (44. 199). Ahab is ultimately his own torturer.
He is not out for simple revenge. Moby Dick signifies to him the power behind the universe. He wants knowledge: what is behind “the pasteboard mask” of the whale’s brow? Why is there suffering and evil? Ahab has a metaphysical quest in hunting the whale. He wants, like Satan, to find God and challenge him. This is partly a yearning to be one with this power, as when he addresses the lightning: “defyingly I worship thee!” Like Faust or Satan, he is incapable of complete surrender to God.
There is thus anger and will in tragic heroes. Ahab wants answers, and he pushes. As he admits, he doesn’t know what it is in him that keeps pushing, but Moby Dick, he says, “tasks me; he heaps me . . . I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (36.161).
Like the biblical king for whom he is named, Ahab takes his people down with him. A tragic hero, by definition, is a leader or king and by overreaching, or committing the sin of pride, creates disaster for all around him. The fate for most tragic heroes is death and dismemberment, an archetype of sacrifice. Such a hero carries not only his own sorrow but the collective tension or crisis of a people, and when he dies, there is a release in the atmosphere.
The tragic catharsis provided by Ahab’s death purges vicariously for Ishmael and the reader the notion that individual will can defy the will of the universe. Like Jonah, like Job, like Oedipus, he is punished for his presumption. His destruction therapeutically destroys that hardness and pride in us. 2. What does Moby Dick have to say about democracy and American culture?
Ishmael as an American is proud of having his freedom, of living in a democracy that teaches equality of all people. The book at its best seems to promote a multi-cultural outlook, for the Pequod, though an American ship, has a crew of diverse races and religions. Yet the name of the ship is the Pequod, referring to a warlike race of Native Americans, enslaved and massacred by the whites, who took their land, and this hints of a darker side of American history, though Melville may have chosen the name simply to reflect the tragic fate of the ship.
The Quaker captains Peleg and Bildad, with their biblical names and Puritan attitudes, reflect the European settlement of America with its dual, and sometimes incompatible drives of religious and economic freedom. New Bedford and Nantucket depict the squalor and sudden riches, the teeming activity, of commercial shipping towns of New England.
Moby Dick was published in the decade before the Civil War when the racial tension and slavery issues were at their height. Slavery had been abolished in other colonial nations like England, but the U. S. did not abolish slavery until 1865. Melville’s personal experience of traveling and living with people of other races, like the natives of the Marquesas, made him more tolerant than his contemporaries.
He is at pains to make the South Seas prince, Queequeg, and the American Ishmael, bosom friends and to explore non-Christian ideas throughout the novel with seriousness. Ishmael defends Queequeg’s religion to the Quakers by saying that the whole human race belongs to “the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world” (18.87), thus reminding them that the country stands for freedom of religion and a refuge to all peoples. Ishmael open-mindedly explores with Queequeg the differences between Christianity and paganism (Chapters 10-13), finding much that is admirable in his friend’s religion.
Melville likes to suggest the provincialism of Americans as well, for after all, he had his own eyes opened as a young man living among cannibals in the South Seas. Starbuck represents “mere unaided virtue or rightmindedness” like the Quaker stock he comes from, and he is paralyzed to act to prevent Ahab’s madness (41, 183).
The Quaker religion as we see it in New Bedford and Nantucket, including Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah, is not comprehensive enough to account for what is going to happen on the open seas. Ahab shockingly abandons his own Quaker faith for the Zoroastrian view of Fedallah, the Parsee, whom he treats as a prophet and advisor on the voyage, as if he needed a new set of beliefs to prepare him for Moby Dick.
Democracy also seems to break down on the high seas, for the ship is hierarchical, with Ahab as dictator, and even the mates and harpooners eat in shifts according to rank. The democratic spirit remains in the way Ahab builds consensus among the crew, and the way the men work together as a team. Brotherhood is a democratic aspect of love that transcends hierarchy.
Ishmael believes in “the democratic dignity” of each man that “radiates without end from God” (26.113). He vows as a writer of the story to bring out the glory of each person, and invokes “the spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, Thou great democratic God!” (26.114).
The Pequod thus becomes a microcosm or a ship of state, symbolizing the best and worst of American culture. There is pride in Yankee know how, the fact that Americans lead the whaling industry in knowledge and production . By contrast, we see incompetent ships from France and Germany, who don’t know the first thing about whaling. Certain characters like Starbuck, Bulkington, and Ishmael, represent the best in the American character—the earnestness, friendliness, sober seriousness, innocence, work ethic, generosity, virtue, and dependability. We also see the American dream evoked in the fact that anyone, however strange, is accepted if he is a hard worker. Bildad and Peleg override their religious prejudices against Queequeg once they witness his ability with a harpoon. They give him a greater share of the profit than the others, despite his tattoos.
On the other hand, Flask and Stubb represent more crude and less worthy American traits; they are opportunistic, tricky, and lack respect and sensitivity for others. The blindness with which Americans will pursue a course to the bitter end, as in the Civil War, might be prefigured in the sinking of the Pequod on its ill fated quest. In his later writings Melville satirized more and more bitterly, perhaps partly because of his own lack of recognition, the failures of democracy as it became wrapped up in greed and materialism and its own interests.
3. What is the Importance of Ishmael’s growth?
Ahab is a tragic character, for he is fixed, and refuses to grow. Ishmael, the epic hero, learns and adapts from his adventure on the Pequod and shares it with us. His perspective widens from that of a young adventurer to the wisdom of a sole survivor of tragedy, through a series of rebirths.
Ishmael is a chosen name for the anonymous narrator. The name suits his position in the story, for he is a witness, on the margin of Pequod society, as Ishmael was an unclaimed orphan in the Bible, without social status. Ishmael’s value here is not as an actor but an observer. In places, he all but disappears into the omniscient narrator and becomes the voice of Melville. We assume these are the hard-earned observations of the author in his travels.
Ishmael is an eager learner, restless to get back to the sea, “the ungraspable phantom of life” (1.3) when the story opens. He is a perfect epic hero, willing to go into the unknown and uncharted waters of life, and then share the value of this knowledge with others.
In New Bedford, he meets Queequeg, and their friendship is something new for a lonely wanderer. Friendship mends his heart and makes him feel his place in the world, even though his friend is a savage. This first rebirth, during the pipe ceremony where he feels “married” to Queequeg, illustrates Ishmael’s generous nature. Though a Christian, he worships with a pagan: “what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me” (10.51)
Such a loving and liberal perspective is required to fathom the depth of the quest for the White Whale. In “The Lee Shore” as the Pequod heads out to sea, Ishmael reaffirms his commitment to voyage into the unknown: “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth” (23.105). He also affirms that as a narrator aware of human infirmity, he nevertheless will “run to throw costly robes” over human nature as he found it, and weave it with “tragic graces” (26. 113). In other words, he vows to have a Shakespearean tolerance of the crew’s trials.
His large perspective is gained through his ability to weave in and out of the dark and light events on the voyage, appreciating both for what they can yield. This is opposed to Ahab’s tendency to cling to the dark side of life until he is consumed by it. Ishmael announces at the beginning that he loves “to sail forbidden seas” to become acquainted with horrors, for it is well to be on friendly terms with them (1.4).
“The Whiteness of the Whale” is Ishmael’s wrestling with his own internal fear of the White Whale as an archetype of horror, before he even meets a whale. “The Hyena” records his first brush with death in a whaleboat, and his attempt to become more like Stubb, laughing at the constant danger around him. This is his first successful purging of fear.
In “The Monkey-Rope” he records the instant when he and Queequeg are tied together as they cut up the whale by the side of the ship, depending on one another for their lives. This sort of trust, in the face of death, is something that Ahab never learns, for he resents dependence on others, feeling superior to everyone around him. His stiffness and pride become a weakness, rather than strength. Ishmael has to learn when to take control, and when to let go.
In “The Fountain” and “The Grand Armada” Ishmael accepts the rainbows or “divine intuitions” that visit us in the midst of fog, and realizes that doubt and faith must both be accepted: “this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye” ((85. 370-71).
“The Squeeze of the Hand” records another instant of brotherly love where Ishmael feels kinship with his shipmates, and this is contrasted with “The Try-Works” where he sees the shadow of evil in everyone, including himself. The latter chapter ends with the metaphor of the Catskill eagle that describes the ability of some to fly in and out of the dark places of life. This is what Ishmael learns on his voyage and passes on to us.
4. Does Melville Ever Reconcile the Opposites of Light and the Dark?
Melville’s main duality is set up between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, and the story asks, which force is in charge? He aims to show that in this world, light and dark are inextricably linked, though at war with one another. Only the artist can marry them in a satisfying whole.
Melville’s friend and mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just finished The Scarlet Letter the year before Moby Dick was published, plays, like Melville, with symbols that can be viewed more than one way. The scarlet letter and the white whale depend upon individual viewpoint for their meaning. Light and dark, positive and negative, are in the eye of the beholder.
Melville chose Hawthorne to emulate as an artist and thinker, rather than Transcendentalist writers in vogue, like Emerson. He did not like the Transcendentalist idea that evil did not really exist and that the true nature of the universe is all light. He tips his hat to such philosophies in the character of Bulkington (“The Lee Shore”), who is too pure to live in this world—a man who shuns the pettiness of the material world ashore and who would forever enjoy “the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God” (23.105).
Bulkington, though noble in his uncompromising search for the highest, is disposed of in Chapter 23. He is too like an angel or the mast watcher in “Mast Head” who falls to his death in the sea by wanting to blend with the infinite world he sees around him. So must all Platonists end, warns Melville, if they ignore the dark. Ishmael survives because he learns to exist in both light and shadow.
Moby Dick has plenty of mystic moments, but they are all tinged with darkness, for that is what Melville felt great in Hawthorne and Shakespeare. It is Hawthorne’s “mystical blackness” he tells us that “gives more effect to the ever-moving dawn” and “no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance” (Hawthorne and His Mosses). The blackness gives the infinite and obscure background that furnishes the highlights for a Lear or Hamlet. Such is the mystic blackness Melville gives to Moby Dick.
Christianity is called a shore truth, not enough to explain the horror of action to come. Critics have noted Melville’s inclusion, mostly through the characters of Ahab and Fedallah, of the influence of Zoroastrianism that preached two equal and divine forces in the universe—good and evil, neither fully in charge. Ahab, as we have seen, is obsessed by the dark side. He sees no unified power in the universe, no Providence.
In one of his most brilliant chapters, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville reverses the usual categories of dark and light to prove it is the whiteness of the whale that is its chief terror. He turns white from a color of goodness to a color denoting evil, making it obscure, like darkness itself: “. . . the great principle of light forever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper” (42.192)
Is Moby Dick a gloomy picture of the world? Not as gloomy as some of Melville’s later works, for there is still the redemption of brotherly love and Ishmael’s generous and wise perspective. The novel’s content does not answer the mystery of the universe; we see good and evil side by side. It is art alone that can bring the opposites into a whole, as Melville noted in his poem Timoleon, where “unlike things must meet and mate. . . and fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,/ To wrestle with the angel—Art.”
5. How Can We Read This Novel Today When We Know Whales Are An Endangered Species?
The modern reader, ecologically aware of the near-extinction of many species of whale, and of the great intelligence of this largest of mammals, no longer seen as a “fish,” and of the beauty and complex creativity of whale song, may have to adjust to the nineteenth century view of whales and whaling. We may wonder what Melville means by these terrifying monsters of the deep when we see the sympathy between human and whale in so many movies today and can view trained whales in aquaria, who enjoy having their backs scratched.
Whale hunting in Melville’s time was a more evenly matched battle between man and animal than it is now, and at that time the whale was not endangered. Melville predicted the whale would not be exterminated as the buffalo had been because the situation was different. The land bison were an easier target, especially with the use of rifles. The U. S. government sponsored their extermination to control the Native American population and to keep the railroad tracks clear.
Whale hunting was an individual commercial enterprise worldwide with men in small sailing ships and using harpoons. The oceans were huge hunting grounds, and the whales kept changing migration routes. Melville, though he didn’t believe whaling was immoral in itself, does show the difference in the novel between “civilized” men hunting whales for commercial purposes, and the natives who hunted the whale for their needs, with reverence and even worship.
Ishmael points out with pride that Americans led the whaling industry in the 1840s. They made fortunes for the owners like Peleg and Bildad (seven million dollars a year), had the most sailors, best officers (as in Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) and the most know how. The Nantucket whalers were renowned for their productivity and expertise.
Melville makes a case for whaling because whale oil was used to light American lamps, but many of the products made from the whale, like perfumes and corsets, were luxury items, and the idea of whales being slaughtered and men killed for such uses seems frivolous now. The American traits of consumerism and harvesting from nature without giving back are thus amply demonstrated in Ishmael’s portrait of whaling, although at the time, the hunting was seen as fair and brave.
The harvesting of whales has been known since 6000 BC The practice is responsible for endangering the existence of five out of thirteen of the species of great whales. For that reason, Greenpeace and other organizations fiercely battled for their protection in the 1970s, and in 1985, a worldwide moratorium on whale hunting went into effect, although some countries do not recognize this ban. Today, the sperm whale is on the “vulnerable” list and sperm oil is not generally used. Whales are hunted for their meat by Inuit people in Canada and Greenland, and in Norway, the Faroe Islands and the Caribbean. The disappearance of the buffalo or whale was not a moral issue in Melville’s time. Today, it is felt morally wrong to exterminate an animal species.
Moby Dick: Essay Q&A
1. Why is Ahab’s behavior so extreme?