Chapter 28, “Ahab”
Ahab does not show himself for days after the ship leaves, and the mates, who are seasoned officers, run the ship. Nevertheless, Ishmael is nervous to see the captain because of Elijah’s prophesies. The ship heads south and gradually leaves winter behind. One cloudy day Ahab appears on deck, and for Ishmael it is worse than he feared.
Ahab does not look ill, but “he looked a man cut away from the stake” before the fire had finished consuming him (28. 120). He seems made out of bronze in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s Perseus. He has a scar like lightning, rumored to run from crown to sole. He is a grim man with a white whalebone leg, which he centers in a hole bored in the quarter-deck. He looks straight ahead to sea without moving, with “an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrendable willfulness” (28.121). He is a stricken man “with a crucifixion in his face” (28.121). Ahab is not needed by the crew, but every day he watches silently on deck.
The description of Ahab makes him seem an inhuman and supernatural figure, one who does not bend, a man injured more in his soul than body, a man who has survived a crucifixion but has not recovered. The reference to the Greek hero Perseus brings up the monster he killed—Medusa, the Gorgon—a witch with snaky locks whose glance turned a man to stone. Perseus cut off her head by seeing her indirectly in his shield, but Ahab seems as though he may have seen her face to face. Ishmael is shaken just seeing Ahab, though nothing has happened yet, for he looks as though he would stop at nothing to control the ship and bend it to his will.