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Captain Ahab

Captain Ahab

From Hell's Heart, I stab at thee...for Hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee...
~ Ahab's most famous quote

Captain Ahab is the main character of the classic Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. Despite the titular monstrous white whale being seen as the villain, Ahab is actually one as well since he has allowed his thirst for vengeance to drive him insane - the story of Moby Dick has been quoted by some as a prime example of the futility of humans seeking vengeance on animals and Captain Ahab may well embody such a concept.

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a cal desire to kill Moby Dick, the whale that had maimed him off the coast's of Japan during a previous whaling voyage. Although he is a Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion's well-known pacifism. Ahab's Biblical namesake is the evil idol-worshipping Israelite ruler King Ahab in the Books of Kings in the Bible, and this association prompts Ishmael to ask, after first hearing of Ahab's name.

When Ishmael remarks upon the ill associations of such a name, he is rebuked by one of Ahab's colleagues, who points out that "He did not name himself!"

Little information is provided about Ahab's life prior to meeting Moby Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age due to the death of his insane widowed mother. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck, it is revealed that he first began whaling at 18 and has continued in the trade for 40 years making him 58 years of age and having spent less than 3 on land. He also mentions his "girl-wife," whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (save for Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his last harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

The harpoon becomes lodged in Moby Dick's flesh and Ahab, caught around the neck by a loop in his own harpoon's rope and unable to free himself, is dragged down into the cold oblivion of the sea by the injured whale. The mechanics of Ah AB's death are richly symbolic. He is killed by his own harpoon, a victim of his own twisted obsession and desire for revenge. The whale eventually destroys the whaleboats and crew (but spares Ishmael), and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab's motivation for hunting Moby Dick is explored in the following passage:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.

Trivia

  • Biographer Andrew Delbanco calls Ahab "a brilliant personification of the very essence of fanaticism". F. O. Matthiessen calls attention to the fact that Ahab is called an "ungodly god-like man". Ahab's "tragedy is that of an unregenerate will" whose "burning mind is barred out from the exuberance of love" and argues that he "remains damned". D. H. Lawrence felt little sympathy for Ahab and found that the whale should have "torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides".
  • The character of Ahab was created under the influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's lecture on Hamlet and figures in biblical and classical literature such as Shakespeare and Milton. His prosthesis, for instance, has been taken for an allusion to the Oedipus myth.
  • Ahab is firmly established in popular culture by cartoons, comic books, movies and plays. Most famously, he provided J. M. Barrie with the model for his Captain Hook character, who is obsessed not with a whale but a crocodile.
  • Ahab's character was shaped by mythic and literary patterns that overlap and reinforce each other in such a complementary way that "the apparent irony of one allusion is frequently the truth of another." For instance, allusions to Oedipus, which flesh out Ahab's ignorance and lack of self-knowledge, are complemented by references to Narcissus, which evoke the psychological causes for his own ignorance. Ahab's use of a spade for a crutch in Chapter 70, "The Sphinx", reminds the reader that he is lame, like Oedipus, and also wounded, like the Titan Prometheus. However, Ahab should be considered both in relation to the allusions and in contrast to the other characters.

Like his namesake, Captain Ahab worships pagan gods, particularly the spirit of fire. Fedallah the Parsee, his harpooner, is a fire-worshipping Zoroastrian. Fedallah contributes to Ahab's death by forecasting that:

    • Before Ahab dies, he must see 2 hearses;
    • He promises to precede his captain as a pilot;
    • He assures Ahab that only hemp can kill him.
  • These prophesies of Fedallah's, accurate as they may be, deceive Ahab, who perceives them to be an assurance of victory.
  • Charles Olson, a pioneering Melville admirer, mentions 3 modes of madness in King Lear by Shakespeare, the King's, the Fool's, and Edgar's, with Ahab taking the role of Lear and Pip the roles of both the Fool and Edgar. Melville makes his points by way of contrasts to Shakespeare. Olson identifies the typhoon in chapter 119, "The Candles," with the storm in Lear. "Ahab, unlike Lear," Olson observes, "does not in this night of storm discover his love for his fellow wretches. On the contrary, this night Ahab uncovers his whole hate." Later, in chapter 125, "The Log and Line," Ahab says to Pip, in Lear's words to his Fool, "Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou are tied to me by chords woven of my heart-strings." While Sweeney endorses Olson's identification, he finds exaggerated the claim that Ahab learns from his cabin-boy just as Lear does from the Fool. Ahab learns "little or nothing" throughout the book.
  • According to Nathalia Wright, in John Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan is "not the least element of which Captain Ahab is compounded". The words with which Ishmael and Starbuck portray him—infidel, impious, diabolic, blasphemous—describe him as a towering rebel.
  • In "The Candles" (Ch 119) Ahab's harpoon is called a "fiery dart." The phrase is taken from book XII of John Milton's Paradise Lost, as Henry F. Pommer recognized, where Michael promised Adam "spiritual armour, able to resist/ Satan's assaults, and quench his fiery darts" (XII, 491-2).[27] Pommer argues that Milton's work was more immediate than Shakespeare, because while some of Melville's soliloquies appear to find their prototypes in Shakespeare, "there is a slight step from dramatic monologue to fictional thought," and Milton "had already taken that step, using, in his own extended narrative, soliloquies precisely like Melville's."
  • Allusions that identify Ahab with Satan[a] include the scene in Milton's Hell in which the following image appears: "Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit/Chew'd bitter ashes, which the offended taste/With spattering noise rejected" (X, 565–567). In chapter 132, "The Symphony," Ahab, "like a blighted fruit-tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil." On the last day of the chase, Ahab muses in terms of the Creation: ""What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summerhouse to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon that world." On that day Moby Dick, "seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven," sinks the ship. Tashtego hammers a sky-hawk to the mast: "And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upward, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven with her, and helmeted herself with it." Yet Pommer finds "most impressive of all" evidence the Latin in chapter 113, "The Forge," with which Ahab baptizes his crew in name of the Devil: "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli."
  • Ahab's scar may have been modeled on the description of Satan's face in I, 600-601, which "Deep scars of thunder had intrench'd."
  • The greatness and woe of both Satan and Ahab lies in pride. "The proud person," Pommer explains, "believing that he deserves treatment appropriate to his self-inflated dignity, is quick to anger when he receives a less welcome treatment. At the exaltation of the Messiah, Satan 'could not bear/Through pride that sight, and thought himself impair'd.'" Satan's "sense of injur'd merit" is reported in his first speech in Hell. Ahab's story, caused by Moby Dick biting off his leg, follows the same psychological pattern of being spiritually and physically impaired.

Overlapping with Lear, the typhoon scene in "The Candles" also seems to be Melville's recreation of the mythical theft of fire. Prometheus accomplished this great by the stealthy hiding of the divine spark in a fennel stalk. In contrast, "Ahab's theft is a boldly defiant deed, set amidst elemental nature in furious eruption." The whole business of whaling is a theft of fire, for the sperm whale's oil is used as fuel for flames. The hunt for the White Whale, described by Ishmael as "the fiery hunt," thus represents a conflict with a deity—hence the references to Moby Dick as a god. Ahab waving the fiery harpoon is Melville's "modified equivalent of Prometheus's smuggling from heaven the fire-laden fennel stalk." Both Prometheus and Ahab try to alter or reverse "the supernatural design, and herein lies the acme of their tragic hybris." Prometheus, mistakenly convinced that Zeus planned the destruction of man, stole fire in order to contravene the will of the god; Ahab, thinking his mind can penetrate the mystery of evil, is convinced that killing Moby Dick will "expel evil from the cosmos."

  • In a tragedy, a hero has a mad counterpart: Prometheus has Io, Moby-Dick has Pip. The madness of Io and Pip is caused by their unintentional contact with the primal elements or with the deity. "The Pip who dances and shakes his tambourine before Queequeg's coffin," Sweeney compares, "is clearly a maniac, completely detached from his former personality." Likewise, Io, tortured by the gadfly, "bursts upon the stage in a wild dance...While on the stage, Io speaks with a disjointed frenzy much the same as Pip's."
  • In "The Candles", Ahab is temporarily stricken by blindness, an allusion to the Oedipus legend. In the chapter "The Sphynx", Ahab stands before a sperm whale's head hanging from the side of his ship: "it seemed the Sphynx's in the desert." Ahab orders the head to "tell us the secret thing that is in thee." Here Ahab resembles Oedipus and the monster of Thebes, the more for his using a spade alternatively as both a crutch and as a tool to dissect the whale with. Oedipus' staff, Sweeney notes, is both "a walking tool and the murder weapon with which he killed his father." The Promethean and Oedipean sides of Ahab connect in this chapter by way of the crutch. In addition to this, blindness is alluded to. Oedipus and Ahab are intelligent and ignorant at the same time, excessively proud, and both face a riddle (the mystery of evil).
  • The opening chapter contains an extended allusion to "that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned" (Ch. 1, "Loomings"). Ahab does not realize that the malice he sees in the White Whale is his own, "wildly projected." His Narcissistic self-delusion (he is unaware that he sees himself in the whale) complements "his Oedipean self-ignorance" (he does not know who he really is). The Narcissus legend also explains why Ahab, unlike Oedipus, remains self-ignorant. While 2 messengers enlight Oedipus and separate him from his obsession, Narcissus and Ahab are never interrupted from theirs. The contrast between Narcissus and Ahab is that the first contemplates a beautiful image which he loves, while Ahab projects a wicked image which he hates, which Sweeney calls "an ironic reversal on Melville's part." In several ways Ahab and Moby Dick resemble each other:
    • Both are described with images of royalty, divinity, and archeology.
    • Both share physical features, they are scarred or wounded, and each has a prominent brow or forehead.
    • Both share the same internal characteristics: isolated, stubborn, vengeful, quickly enraged.
    • Finally, both are "ultimately unknowable." According to Ishmael in "The Nut," all things that are mighty wear "a false brow to the common world." Ahab hates the mask as much as he does the thing itself.
  • A subtle connection between Ahab, Moby Dick and Fedallah is formed by the imagery of the brow and forehead. According to Sweeney, Fedallah is "clearly an external projection of Ahab's own depravity" and at the same time a double of what Ahab finds most evil in the whale. Fedallah is several times described using "phantom" imagery in the chapter "Ahab's Boat and Crew. Fedallah." In Ovid's mythical tale, Narcissus has an airy counterpart in the speech-deprived nymph Echo, who can only repeat the sounds she hears. Echo is an auditary complement to the visual reflection and a foreshadowing of Narcissus' death. In the same way, Fedallah, who only says what Ahab wants to hear, is an auditory reflection of Ahab's evil, of which Moby Dick is the visual reflection. Fedallah foreshadows Ahab's death.
  • This type of allusions would typically be perceived as sacrilegious and also be expurgated from the English edition (Tanselle (1988, 681–2 and 784).

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