Ahab’s Obsession and Voyage of Self-destruction
Herman Melville introduces us to an intriguing cast of characters in his novel Moby Dick . First and foremost is Ishmael. The name Ishmael is a Biblical name meaning “outcast”. Melville’s young Ishmael was a very intelligent traveler looking for life’s wonders. He travels to Nantucket seeking a job on a whaling ship. This outcast becomes the voice of the book and shows the reader what he sees from a very unique perspective. Ishmael introduces himself in the opening paragraph and shows a kind of fatality already residing in his mind. It is as though he has come to the sea to die. Yet, he will spend a protracted amount of time detailing his knowledge of the whaling industry and the fateful, final voyage of Captain Ahab and his crew.
Ishmael describes specifically the people he meets. He does so with such clarity that it is as if the reader is present while the action is taking place. He helps us to see, hear and feel what is taking place. This is how he describes his first encounter with Queequeg, the yellow skinned, heavily tattooed harpooner from New Zealand. Due to crowded conditions, Ishmael had to share a bed with Queequeg during their first night together. “Ignorance is the devil of fear, and being completely non-plussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night.”
Ishmael’s honesty, detail and perspective will help the reader understand the delusional, maniacal Captain Ahab, captain of the whaling vessel, The Pequod. Through this outcast’s eyes we will watch as Captain Ahab launches a dogmatic pursuit which will be the vehicle of his death. Ahab, who seems as we first meet him unstable, will forfeit his sanity completely in fulfillment of his obsession to kill Moby Dick, the great, white sperm whale that has already taken one of his legs.
The crew who surrounds Ahab, who watches as his obsession turns into a life force, will witness the great whale demand his very life. Captain Ahab, on his trip of self-destruction uses everything in his substantial power to urge, then demand and finally force the crew to submit to the common destiny of hunting Moby Dick and killing him.
He becomes a tyrant who refuses to be concerned about anyone or anything other than taking vengeance on what his sees as evil incarnate. He manipulates his men into employing some of the enthusiasm and intensity he has for the task before them. At one point he bribes them with gold.
“All ye mastheaders have before now heard me give orders about a white whale. Look
ye! D’ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?” ‘”holding up a broad bright coin to the sun-“it is a sixteen dollar piece, men. D’ye see it? Mr. Starbuck, hand me yon top-maul.”
And with that Ahab nailed the gold to the mast. Then he told his men,
“Whoever raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw three holes punctured in his starboard fluke-look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!”
When such enticements didn’t work he had other forms of manipulation he would use. He also began taking unnecessary risks and forgoing normal seafaring etiquette. It was the norm that when whaling ships met at sea they would have what they called a gam. A gam “is a social meeting of two (or more) whale ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boat’s crews; the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.”
They exchange information, warnings of any danger they may meet, mail and other items. It was highly unusual for ships to neglect this protocol. Yet, in his madness to kill Moby Dick, Captain Ahab surprisingly chose to avoid having a gam when he met other ships. The only time he would spend any time in conversation with men on another ship was when he could get information regarding sightings of Moby Dick. His obsession was driving him to pay no heed to normal behavior. His crew watched as he drifted further and further into delusion.
One of the ways Captain Ahab would apply pressure to his men to participate in the hunting and killing of Moby Dick was his attempt to convince the men that it was their shared destiny. Captain Ahab wanted the men to feel as though they were exercising their will in participating in the pursuit of the white whale. At the same time, Ahab was trying to convince them that fate had drawn them all together for this moment at hand.
A strange meeting takes place between Ahab and his three harpooners. He sprinkles the blood of all three harpooners onto their harpoons. He has them take off the metal, barbed tips and drink from them. In Chapter 36 “Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league…. Drink, ye harpooners! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Ahab’s behavior was becoming more irrational as the hunt progressed.
Not to be deterred, even when threatened with mutiny from Starbuck, Ahab pressed on with his goal of finding the whale. He had a new harpoon forged, and he sprinkles his blood on it. The crew hunts and kills several more whales.
Fedallah makes a prophecy about Ahab’s death, claiming that he will ” sees two hearses, the second of which will be made from American wood, and that a rope made of hemp will kill him. Ahab is pleased, because he believes there are no hearses or hangings at sea. When an electrical storm lights up the entire ship, Ahab believes that he has received a positive omen. However, at the end of the storm, one of the crew falls off the masthead and dies.
Another irrational behavior of Captain Ahab occurred when Ahab was on deck, smoking his beloved pipe. He threw the pipe into the sea in what seemed to be a spontaneous, impulsive act. The pipe represented happiness and when he threw it away it represented the fact that all happiness had left him. It was as though, in the act of throwing the pipe away, he was committing everything he had to the pursuit that owned him.
When the crew of the Pequod finally sees Moby Dick they begin a deadly three day battle. For two days the battle for life is fought between the crew, mad Ahab and Moby Dick. During the two days the ship and crew experience devastation. During this time Fedallah is killed. The next time he is seen is on the third day when Moby Dick rises to the surface. Fedallah is tied to the whale by the entangled harpoon ropes. During the third day, Starbuck pleads with Ahab to give up. He pleads, ” Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou that madly seekest him .”
On the third and final day of battle the crew attempts one more time to kill Moby Dick. Insanely, Ahab puts the last three of his boats into the chase. Moby Dick damages two of the boats and they have to return to the ship. That leaves only Ahab’s boat to go after Moby Dick. The whale had taken several harpoons. The final one thrown was launched by Ahab himself. The rope, however, becomes wrapped around his neck. The harpoon struck the whale and held fast. Ahab is catapulted into the sea and Moby Dick takes him to his death.
Captain Ahab was single-minded in his quest to serve vengeance on Moby Dick. It was his decision and it quickly became his passion. The passion grew to obsession. The obsession cost everyone except Ishmael their life. Ahab’s pathological preoccupation, fueled by his pride and arrogance, developed into a force that could not be controlled or stopped by those around him. Ahab sought to conquer Moby Dick and in so doing put himself under Moby Dick’s control. Ahab’s pride extracted a very high toll. His life ambition demanded his life. His chosen path was his undoing. Pride, arrogance and vengeance produced insanity, defeat and death.