Character Analysis of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Captain Ahab in Moby Dick

Ahab Moby Dick

Ahab, the protagonist in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the captain of the whaling ship Pequod. The Captain lost his one leg as Moby Dick, the whale bit off which made him wear a prosthetic leg.

There is an autobiographical side to Melville’s novels in that he wrote directly or indirectly about his own experiences in them. This holds true in the case of Moby Dick also. Ahab reflects some of Melville’s own problems and conflicts. William Ellery Sedgewick makes the following observation in this context:

“The letters Melville wrote to Hawthorne while he was writing Moby Dick show him on the skirts of a vortex which his imagination was making terribly real in Ahab, They show him spiritually in the identical danger that Ishmael was in.. . His own intransigent idealism speaks loudest in the apostrophe to Bulkington of the morally intolerable truth-that as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, ‘shoreless, indefinite as God’” (Sedgewick, p.131).

But it would be a mistake to think that Ahab is Melville. Melville does not have either the bitterness towards mankind or the egoistic arrogance that characterizes people of satanic monomania like Ahab.

Ahab is cast in the mould of Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Macbeth and Lear. Melville makes a tragic hero out of a Nantucket whaleman. He is powerfully built and enjoys good health. But he has a strange vertical mark on his body from head to foot. In some strange way it puts us in mind of Milton’s description of the mark on Satan’s face in Paradise Lost (Book 1). Look at the two passages from Melville and Milton and they will give us a clue to Ahab’s character.

“Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it… leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”

 (Moby Dick, p. 129).

The following is a description of the mark on Satan’s face.

“…but his face Deep scars of thunder had intrenched and care Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows Dauntless courage and considerate pride

Waiting revenge…” (Paradise Lost, Bk 1, 600-604).

The fallen angels, with their glory withered, appear thus:

“… as when heaven’s fire Hath scathed the forest oaks or mountain pines With singed top their stately growth, though bare

Stand on the blasted heath.” (Paradise Lost, BK 1,612 615).

The references to lightning (‘heaven’s fire’ and ‘scars of thunder”), ‘waiting for revenge’ and the singed oaks and pines underline the similarity between Satan, the fallen archangel, and Ahab.

But Milton’s Satan is not just the Devil. He is an archetypal hero, an inspiring leader. His only fault is his monumental ego, which gives him an overarching ambi.ion and makes him cross all limits and challenge God himself. Thus he commits hubris. Before the opening of the epic the battle in heaven takes place in which Satan is hit by God’s thunderbolt, the ultimate weapon, which leaves him scarred and branded forever. In the case of Ahab also, the fight in which Ahab is scarred and branded for life and forced to limp on an ivory leg, takes place before the novel opens. When Ahab is presented, we find him revengeful and railing against Moby Dick even as we find Satan in Book 1 of Paradise Lost revengeful and thundering against God. Like Satan inspiring his followers, with his rousing oratorical skills, to wage an endless war against God, Ahab earns the faith and loyalty of the crew with his powerful words and force of personality. Both are charismatic leaders.

Ahab’s force of personality can be seen in his dialogue with Starbuck, who initially resists the captain’s monomania and revenge against a ‘dumb brute’, but is subdued into obedience which lasts through the rest of the novel. Ahab knows how to handle his subordinate officers. He deals a little gently with pious Starbuck and rather roughly with tactless Stubb. He uses all his charm on his crew and makes them swear total loyalty to him and revenge against Moby Dick. He is a charismatic leader cast in the mould of Satan, Macbeth, and Lear in classical literature, Chengis khan, Tamerlaine, and other conquerors in History, and Napoleon and Hitler in modern times.

Ahab has a single track mind and does not tolerate opposition or even difference of opinion. Such men become dictators if they happen to be in positions of power. But such men have a strange influence over their fellow human beings and can unify people of diverse faiths and temperaments a pious Christian like Starbuck, a pipe-smoking, happy go lucky man like Stubb, a cigar-smoking, devil-may-care fellow like Flask, a pagan Red Indian like Tashtego, a Negro-savage like Daggoo, an idol-worshipping cannibal like Queequeg, a fire-worshipping Parsee like Fedallah, and an imaginative and sensitive thinker like Ishmael. All these and other members of the crew are devoted to Ahab; some of them like Starbuck or Ishmael have their reservations, but they keep their thoughts to themselves and follow Ahab without a question. This shows Ahab’s tremendous force of Personality.

Ahab has a close similarity to his Biblical namesake, King Ahab. Like the Biblical Ahab, who is guided or misguided by prophecies, Captain Ahab is also guided by the mysterious prophet, Fedallah. History and literature are full of examples of such heroes being guided by prophecies. Even Jesus quotes old prophecies to justify his actions. But the charismatic dictators who develop a gigantic ego are lulled into a false sense of security and invincibility by such prophecies.

Fedallah’s prophecies are like the prophecies of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They are also like the boons given to the great demons who are destroyed by God Vishnu, who assumes the appropriate form for the purpose in ancient Hindu stories. An interesting example is that of the great demon King, Hiranya Kasipu, who prays to Brahma, the creator, and gets a boon of near immortality-that he should not suffer death from either a god or a man or an animal or a bird, in the day or in the night, in a house or outside a house by any kind of weapon etc., etc. The boon gives him a sense of invincibility and he goes on doing all kinds of terrible things and conquers the three worlds. But God Vishnu incarnates himself as a man-lion (Narasimha) and kills the demon at twilight, on the threshold of his house with his bare hands and nails.

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Ahab, like Hiranya Kasipu and Macbeth feels completely secure and invincible, but Moby Dick strikes in such a way that the prophecies are not falsified.

The character of Ahab may be interpreted as that of a seeker after Truth or Self or the Absolute Reality or total freedom from bondage, otherwise known as Salvation. In his own words, all things material are but paste-board masks and he himself is like a prisoner circumscribed by a wall. For him the whale is that wall or that mask. Unless the mask is torn off, Truth is not revealed. Unless the wall is broken down, freedom cannot be achieved. For Hiranya Kasipu it is a pillar in which the Supreme Spirit (Lord Vishnu as Narasimha/lion man) reveals itself.

Ahab is one of the most interesting characters in world literature.

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