Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Ahab — The Misunderstood Captain “If a warrior is to succeed at anything, the success must come gently, with a great deal of effort, but with no stress or obsession” (Carloss Castaneda). Individual passion for a worthwhile goal is usually encouraged and supported by society.
However, when that passion crosses the line and becomes obsession, or the single-minded pursuit of a goal at the expense of and without any consideration for the well-being of oneself or others, society condemns it as insanity. It is a common argument that Herman Melville uses the tragic hero of Captain Ahab in the book Moby-Dick as an apotheosis of the destructive nature of idee fixe. While Ahab at times appears obsessed with Moby-Dick, perhaps to the point of near insanity, and is reckless and impulsive in the pursuit of the white whale, the fierce captain nevertheless does not completely lose touch with reality and continues to try to take care of those around him even at the expense of losing Moby-Dick. Ahab embodies the definition of a tragic hero who struggles with a deep personal flaw, realizing its destructive potential, but he, like most tragic heroes, is unable to overcome his fate and prevent the deaths of those around him. As such, Ahab should not be understood as the personification of obsession, but rather as a tragic hero who struggles with his obsessive tendencies without ever fully giving in to them. Ahab exhibits many qualities that could be characterized as those of an obsessed madman.
After Moby-Dick bites his leg off, Ahab transforms the white whale into a single entity that represents all of his rage and hate. Ishmael — the narrator of the story and the only survivor of the shipwreck that killed Ahab and his crew — describes Ahab’s behavior while bedridden after Moby-Dick’s attack: “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” (Melville 154). As a result of losing his leg, Ahab begins a quest in pursuit of Moby-Dick despite opposition from his crew and to the detriment of his commercial whaling business. As his journey to capture Moby-Dick progresses, Ahab starts to exhibit increasingly more behaviors that demonstrate his obsession beginning to overtake his reason. In a fit of rage, he destroys his quadrant, a perfectly functioning instrument used to predict the ship’s current location, just because it would not predict Moby-Dick’s location (Melville 396).
These elements all come together to illustrate the reason that people often characterize Moby-Dick as a tale of one man’s obsession. However, Ahab’s character is more complex than this oversimplification of his pursuit of Moby-Dick; despite his deep-seated need to pursue and kill the whale, Ahab retains a conscience and an enduring empathy for others, which allows him to continue to be a top-notch commander and keeps him from truly abandoning his humanity to obsession. Ahab’s humanity is exemplified in his benevolent actions towards the young Pip. After his near-death experience when the crew leaves him to drown in the open ocean, Pip realizes his insignificance in the world and soon becomes clinically insane — unable to articulate anything but nonsense. When Ahab notices this, he decides to help the young black boy in any way he can. “Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives.
Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy” (Melville 411). This extraordinary act of kindness makes evident Ahab’s ability to consider the general well-being of his crew and not just the pursuit of the whale. The fact that Ahab has not completely given into his obsession and continues to struggle with it is further demonstrated when he tries to protect his crew at the expense of reaching his goal of killing the whale. When at last Ahab’s ship spots Moby-Dick, the first mate, Starbuck, is ready to go after the white whale. Ahab stops him from going after it and says, “I see my wife and my child in thine eye.
No, no; stay on board, on board! — lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! Not with the far away home I see in that eye!” (Melville 427). Ahab feels that by protecting Starbuck, he is vicariously taking care of his own family whom he has ignored for so long. This is also a crucial moment in the book because here Ahab decides that taking care of Starbuck is more important to him than utilizing his first mate (presumably the best commander of the three whaling boats), which would increase his chances for success.
So, here, Ahab once again acts in an altruistic manner and once again shows his ability to think rationally and put the well-being of others ahead of his passion. This behavior demonstrates that while Ahab walks the fine line between passion and obsession, he has not yet crossed over into the abyss that is true obsession. Unlike most people driven insane by obsession, Ahab is able to recognize that his behavior is becoming increasingly obsessive and mad. After his first encounter with the crew, when Ahab proclaims that his sole goal of this whaling expedition is to get revenge on Moby-Dick, Ahab says, “They think me mad — Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!” (Melville 142). Unlike Ahab, people who are truly obsessed often believe in their own greatness and blame others for not understanding their worthy goals and deeds necessary to obtain those goals. By contrast, Ahab is able to admit to and criticize his own behavior in an objective fashion.
In fact, he goes further than his accusers; while Starbuck simply calls Ahab mad, Ahab goes even further and calls himself “demoniac” and “madness maddened.” This shows that he has not lost all track of reality. Moreover, despite his deep desire to catch Moby-Dick, Ahab is able to listen to reason and to honor his crew’s request to continue to catch and kill other whales. From the beginning of the journey, Ahab had his mind set on sailing around the world in order to catch Moby-Dick. His crew, however, is not interested in fighting its captain’s battle in order to get revenge on a whale and soon begin to question his authority.
When this happens, rather than ignoring his crew and bullying them into submission, Ahab realizes that he must heed their request and hunt whales other than Moby-Dick in order to make his crew happy and make profit from killing whales. He continues to search for Moby-Dick while on these expeditions, but does not do so at the expense of his crew. Ahab is able to balance his own goals with those of his crew, which further suggests his ability to control his obsession with Moby-Dick. Thus, Ahab should not be understood as an example of a man who sacrifices his life and the life of his crew to his obsession, but rather as a tragic hero who struggles against his hamartia, but is ultimately unable to prevail and avoid his sad, tragic fate. Ahab possesses the ability to criticize himself and to recognize the degeneration in his personality, a trait that is atypical of a person truly obsessed to the point of insanity, who would consider himself completely justified in the pursuit of his goals. Moreover, the mark of true obsession is the inability to think or care about anything else but the end-goal.
If Ahab was truly obsessed with Moby-Dick, he would not have a clear view of his own behavior nor the ability or desire to care for anything unrelated to progressing the task of capturing the whale. By contrast, Ahab is concerned about the welfare and needs of his crew, which he demonstrates repeatedly throughout the novel. Taken together, these instances of self-reflection, empathy and the ability to balance his desires with the desires of others all suggest that Ahab is not mindlessly obsessed, but a tragic hero who, despite his best efforts, is not able to save himself and his crew from his own destructive powers.