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A number of Moby-Dick's characters are flat, one-dimensional: Fedallah sometimes seems to have come not from a realistic sea adventure but from a horror story; Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are more representatives of three different philosophies of life than living human beings with all the complexities human beings possess. Even Ahab, though complex, is exaggerated, hardly a man you might meet walking down the street.
"A grand, ungodly, god-like man," Peleg, a co-owner of the Pequod, aptly calls Ahab, the ship's captain. Ahab is grand because of his enormous intelligence and ability, ungodly because of his refusal to worship anything except his own will; and he's godlike because his doomed fight against the universe is in some way a nobly defiant one that lifts him above mortal men and places him closer to the great forces of nature: lightning, fire, the whale, even the universe itself.
When Moby-Dick begins, Ahab has been whaling for nearly 40 years. Whaling has become his entire life; though married (to a woman much younger than himself) and a father, he seldom sees his family. Not long before the book opens, Ahab had returned from a voyage on which he suffered a terrible injury-the great whale, Moby-Dick, had sliced off his leg. This injury brings on the fierce desire for revenge that underlies Moby-Dick's basic plot. To Ahab, the loss of his leg is not just a single crime against him, but stands for all the evils sent down upon mankind by a cruel God.
Ahab is a complex figure. One part of his character is symbolized by his name: Ahab, in I Kings, was a wicked king of Israel punished for his disobedience. Throughout the book Ahab disobeys the rules of religion, of business, of common sense; he ignores omens, pleas, experience. And like the biblical Ahab, he is punished.
Yet there is a happier side to Ahab as well. As Peleg says, Ahab "has his humanities." In the chapter "The Symphony" you will see that even when caught up by his obsession, Ahab can be moved, though briefly, by the world's beauty. Even more importantly, Ahab is moved by the innocence and madness of Pip, the ship-keeper abandoned on the ocean, recognizing in the boy the love and humility that Ahab refuses to permit in himself. For it is part of Ahab's tragedy that he knows better than anyone else what his obsession is costing him. At times he revels in his bitterness and hatred, claiming sorrow more noble than joy. But he's always aware of simple contentments-his pipe, a sunlit ocean-that he can seldom enjoy.
His self-awareness, along with his intelligence and will-power, makes Ahab in many ways a genuine tragic hero. Indeed, Melville links him directly to Greek heroes like Prometheus and Perseus, and indirectly to Shakespearean heroes like King Lear and Macbeth. There is something noble in Ahab's proud defiance, something about it that most of us can sympathize with. What human being doesn't want to fight back against a universe that causes pain? And who doesn't want to be in control of his or her fate? There is some Ahab in all of us, isn't there? And so, as the Pequod is sinking and Ahab faces death, about to be destroyed but still unbowed, we may feel the same sense of awe before him that Ishmael felt when he first saw the captain on the quarterdeck, the kind of awe we feel only before nature's greatest works.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version