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The character of Captain Ahab in Melville's 'Moby Dick.' (Herman Melville)

Melville's Moby-Dick may well be the greatest novel ever written by an American; and, setting aside the great white whale itself, Captain Ahab, skipper of the doomed ship, the Pequod, may be the most compelling character Melville ever created. The novel is, among other things, a sublime effort to plumb the tragic implications of man's relationship to nature. It dramatizes with extraordinary power a humanist vision transcending racial differences and national boundaries. And it widens into the most provocative study of man's relationship to God ever written by an American novelist. With Captain Ahab, we have Melville's idea of the American tragic hero par excellence. In view of the theme that mutually concerns us here--the formation of the self, the status of roles, and the self's relationship to the social order--it is worth exploring what Melville understood tragic experience to be and how he embodied his understanding in a remarkable Promethean figure, Captain Ahab.

For those who have not read the book, or who read it some time ago, it may be briefly summarized as follows. On Christmas Day in 18--, an American whaling ship, the Pequod, so named after a near-extinct tribe of American Indians, sets sail on a long worldwide voyage, of perhaps up to five years. It is in search of whales and the spermaceti oil they yield. The ship is captained by Ahab, a moody, capricious, and dictatorial man of advanced years who bears a scar that threads "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," a "slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish" stretching "from crown to sole" that "came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in an elemental strife at sea."(*)

The Pequod has three mates who, having some authority, ought to have some influence over the captain, but they do not. On the high seas, the captain's word is law, as Ahab reminds one of them: "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod." These mates are Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. In addition, there are three major harpooners: the Polynesian king Queequeg, the imperial Negro Daggoo, and Tashtego, an imposing American Indian who "seemed like the son of the Prince of the Power of Air."

The crew is a motley collection of sailors from various lands and climes. Melville calls them "isolatoes," or disparate individuals. Thinking of the French Revolution, Melville in fact calls them "an Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world's grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back."(27) (Anacharsis Clootz led a deputation of foreigners in Paris to the French National Assembly during the 1790 uprising and declared that the sympathy of all mankind was with the revolutionaries.) It is clear that Melville means for Ahab and the mariners to stand for all the nations of the earth "federated along one keel"; the doomed Pequod, in this sense, represents the world. The Clootz reference also suggests that the mariners have a grievance against the existential order of the world and are in sympathy with a rebellion against the providential scheme of things. Also important in this novel is Ishmael, a naive young American sailor who has gone to sea to rid himself of a recurrent melancholia that tends toward suicide or violence toward others.

The mission of the ship is ostensibly to catch and kill whales, to flense and render them so as to fill the holds with barrels and barrels of oil. But some months out at sea, Captain Ahab--in a dramatic scene on the quarterdeck of the ship--reveals that his real purpose in assembling the crew and setting forth is to catch and kill the legendary white whale of the Pacific, Moby Dick. On the previous voyage this whale sheared off his leg, and his rage at the beast and his desire for revenge upon it are such that he will brook no opposition from his men. In this purpose he is joined by a sinister Parsee named Fedallah, who for some time at the beginning of the novel remains below deck, and who seems to have some kind of satanic hold upon Captain Ahab. In any case, pacing the quarterdeck on his ivory leg, made from "the polished bone of the sperm whale's jaw," Ahab at last summons the men on deck and, with "crucifixion in his face"(28), he announces the mission of the voyage: "Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with 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!'(36)

Various protests are raised by the mates against seeking vengeance on a dumb brute or neglecting the owner's (and the crewmen's) financial interest in filling the casks as quickly as possible with all the sperm oil they can get. But in a cunning demonstration of authoritarian control, Ahab appeals to their manhood, their loyalty to the ship, and to their own avidity by nailing a gold doubloon to the mast, a reward for the man who first sights the whale.

Moby-Dick is, among other things, an encyclopedia of cetological lore having to do with every aspect of the whale--the scientific, zoological, oceanographic, mythic, and philological. And it recounts Ishmael's slow recovery from melancholia, principally through his developing friendship with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg. These thematic elements are interspersed with chapters detailing Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale from the Atlantic into the South Pacific Ocean. In the course of the long voyage they meet nine other ships and conduct nine gains, or meetings, with them. But the pleasure implicit in such meetings is lost to the men, as Ahab wants only information about the whereabouts of Moby Dick. All civilities and pleasures are dispensed with, as Ahab gives his razor away and even throws his pipe overboard. The quadrant is smashed; and compass and chart are jettisoned, as Ahab, with the instinct of a maddened hunter, makes his own magnet, log, and line and pursues Moby Dick across the Pacific by dead reckoning.

As the weeks and months pass, Ahab becomes ever more obsessive. And as the catastrophe nears, Ahab himself sights Moby Dick and lowers the whaleboats on each of three days of the chase. On the third day, the great white whale, plunging up from the depths, breaks the water before the astonished men and rams the Pequod head on, stoving in her bows and sinking the ship like a stone. Ahab, in a small whaleboat, becomes entangled in his own harpoon line and, with Fedallah and his other men, is accidentally roped to the whale as it dives and is dragged down to a watery grave. Of the whole crew, only Ishmael is saved--buoyed up by Queequeg's airtight coffin, which rises from the vortex of the sinking ship. For the rest, it is Armageddon.


To understand the power of blackess at work in Melville's imagination, we need to note that even hile he was composing Moby-Dick, this omnivorous reader, the novelist, was discovering the plays of Shakespeare, especially King Lear, not to speak of Dante's vision of evil in the Inferno and the allegorical fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne. What he found compelling in these writers, and what he incorporated into the portrait of Captain Ahab, was an understanding of the depth and ubiquity of evil in the world. This amounted to a satanism so profound that it could not be directly expressed but had to be conveyed through the mouth of a self-evident madman. Melville, in reviewing Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse in 1850 in the Literary World, said that he found in Hawthorne "a blackness, ten times black" that derived its force "from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of innate depravity and original sin from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like original sin."

Comparing Hawthorne with Shakespeare, Melville went on to say in the Mosses review that he found in Shakespeare a like sense of deep evil at the heart of things.

But it is those deep, far-away things in

him; those occasional flashings-forth of

the intuitive Truth in him; those short,

quick probings at the very axis of reality,--these

are the things that make

Shakespeare Shakespeare. Through the

mouths of the dark characters... he

craftily says or sometimes insinuates the

things which we feel to be so terrifically

true that it were all but madness for any

good man, in his own proper character,

to utter, or even to hint of them. Tormented

into desperation, the frantic Lear

tears off the mask, and speaks the same

madness of vital truth.

Hawthorne and Shakespeare, then, had looked into the abyss and scrupled not to declare what they had seen there--a vital truth about the existence of evil in the world, a truth so horrific that most men cannot face it and so dismiss the speaker of it as deranged and delusional. This vital truth suggests that evil is inherent in the Creation and perhaps emanates from the Creator himself.

To make the horrific implications of the human condition clear in modern terms, Melville chose the novel form. But he invested it with a great many elements of Shakespearean tragedy. The mad King Lear is transfigured into a deranged ship's captain; one whole chapter is written as a scene in a play; elsewhere he gives stage directions for the action; passages are written in Shakespearean blank verse; and at the end of the epilogue, Melville writes "the drama's done."

Tragedy is by Aristotelian definition the fall from greatness of a man superior to ourselves owing to some tragic flaw. Melville establishes Ahab's superiority in several ways. He names his protagonist after a biblical king. This king sits on the deck of the Pequod on a "throne," or chair, made of the tusks of the narwhale. "How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized. For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab." The crew are also elevated: the mates are called "knights," linking them to aristocratic and chivalric traditions, and the harpooners are their "squires." Even whaling is elevated to mythic status, as the voyage here is linked to previous quests for the grand oversized creature--the quests by the "whalemen" Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnu.


Even so, Ahab and these mariners are merely ordinary men. Melville, the American democrat, does not and cannot accord to them real aristocratic status like that of King Lear. Instead, he ascribes to them a grand stature derived from their democratic equality under God. Speaking of the inward dignity of all men, Melville writes:

But this august dignity I treat of is not

the dignity of kings and robes, but that

abounding dignity which has no robed

investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in

the arm that wields a pick or drives a

spike; that democratic dignity which, on

all hands, radiates without and from God

Himself! The great God absolute! The

centre and circumference of all democracy!

His omnipresence, our divine


Melville then goes on to justify his rationale in characterizing Ahab and his men as he does:

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades

and castaways, I shall hereafter

ascribe high qualities, though dark;

weave round them tragic graces; if even

the most mournful, perchance the most

abased, among them all, shall at times

lift himself to the most exalted mounts;

if I shall touch that workman's arm with

some ethereal light; if I shall spread a

rainbow over it, thou just Spirit of

Equality, which hast spread one royal

mantle of humanity over all my kind!

bear me out in it thou great Democratic

God! who didst not refuse the swart convict,

Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl;

Thou who didst clothe with double hammered

leaves of finest gold, the stumped

and paupered arm of old Cervantes;

Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson

from the pebbles; who didst hurl

him upon a warhorse; who didst thunder

him higher than a throne! Thou

who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings,

ever cullest Thy selectest champions

from the kingly commons; bear me

out in it, O God.(26)

Such was Melville's belief in the inward and spiritual value of man that he defines it as the basis of the democratic dignity of all men in God. Jacksonian equality, then, constitutes an expression of the true nobility of mankind-- "the kingly commons."

In grasping the tragic character of Ahab, his sense of himself and the role he plays as "Fate's lieutenant," as one commanded to expunge a great evil from the world, we must understand that he does not regard the white whale that has maimed him as merely a dumb beast. Melville's novel is predicated on the idea that "meditation and water are wedded forever."(1) The land and the water take on symbolic value during the course of the novel, and we quickly discover that the voyage is a voyage on strange seas of thought as well as on the Atlantic and Pacific. Ishmael suggests that men are drawn to the sea because in the water one sees "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all." The philosophical man is thus a watergazer seeking in the sea the fundamental phantom of life, the ontological reality in and of itself, the ungraspable, incomprehensible secret of existence.


Melville knew that voyaging the metaphysical deeps requires certain characteristics--intellectual courage and right reason being chief among them. Especially to be avoided is that timidity that settles for safety and security. Ishmael speaks of "that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore." For Ishmael, as for Ahab, "as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God--so, better it is to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!'(23)

Ahab is preeminently fearless, a deep diver, a water-gazer, and a philosophical man given, like Melville, to symbolic hermeneutics. The shearing off of his leg has brought home to him the problem of evil in the world, has in fact deranged him. For him Moby Dick could be merely a beast, but the creature seems to be much more than that; he may indeed be an agent of a malign power in the universe, the principle of evil itself. In the quarterdeck scene, he elaborates a metaphysics that is fundamentally platonic:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard

masks. But in each event--in the

living act, the undoubted deed--there,

some unknown but still reasoning thing

puts forth the mouldings of its features

from behind the unreasoning mask. If

man will strike, strike through the mask!

How can the prisoner reach outside

except by thrusting through the wall? To

me, the white whale is that wall, shoved

near to me. Sometimes I think there's

naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks

me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous

strength, with an inscrutable malice

sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is

chiefly what I hate; and be the white

whale agent, or be the white whale principal,

I will wreak that hate upon him.

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd

strike the sun flit insulted me.(36)

These remarks suggest that phenomenal actuality is mere appearance, that behind or beneath what is manifest in the visible world is, or may be, a noumenal order and an always "reasoning thing" that controls events. True believers have always associated this reasoning thing, the noumenon, or this fundamental cosmic agency, with God. And, indeed, there is a great deal of imagery in the novel that links Moby Dick to Being itself, the I-am-that-I-am, the divine that cannot be named. The deranged prophet Elijah warns Ishmael not to sail for Moby Dick. And the mad captain Gabriel, in a gain with the ship Jereboam, warns the Pequod not to seek out Moby Dick, as he is the Shaker God incarnate. Ishmael likewise is so struck by the majesty and beauty of Moby Dick, when he first sees the whale surface, that he breaks into a rapturous paean of praise that invokes the deities of the classical tradition. Captain Ahab also associates this cosmic power with the white whale, but he cannot be sure whether the whale is the thing itself (that is, God made manifest) or a representative or agent of God. Perhaps there is simply nothing behind the mask of nature. In any case, the white whale embodies for him all cosmic power, as it is mixed with an inscrutable malice.

Ahab is said to be a Quaker, but this is only nominal and by Nantucket birth. His real religious allegiance, like that of the fire-worshiping Parsee Fedallah, is to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrian belief held that the world was created by Ormazd, the spirit of light and fire. But Ormazd's twin brother Ahriman, who represents the spirit of darkness and evil, continually wars against the light. Human history, according to this belief, is a record of the conflict between the forces of light and darkness. Ahab's scar, which runs from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, came from his participation in the sacramental rites of fire worship. At one point, when the ship is struck by lightning--or St. Elmo's fire appears over the masts--he prays:

Oh, thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom

on these seas I as Persian once did worship,

till in the sacramental act so burned

by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar;

I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I

now know that thy right worship is defiance.

To neither love nor reverence wilt

thou be kind; and e'en for hate thou canst

but kill; and all are killed. No fearless

fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless,

placeless power; but to the last gasp

of my earthquake life will dispute its

unconditional unintegral mastery in me.

In the midst of the personified impersonal,

a personality stands here.(19)

Ahab, in other words, has not only been struck by electricity and scarred for life by the power of that light that he worships, but that power has allowed--or perhaps even caused--his leg to be sheared off. Although Ahab ought to be a believer in the power of good over evil, light over darkness, his leg's being torn off has deranged him. He therefore suffers a psychotic mental inversion according to which light becomes darkness, white becomes black, and God becomes the devil. Hence his hatred of whiteness and the white whale. His God having maimed his true servant, Ahab now pits himself against the divine, and he opposes to this evil deity his own regal personality.


Athhab's titanic struggle against evil, his single-minded objective of eradicating from the face of e earth the agent or principle of wickedness that could so maim and destroy, is heroic and admirable. All readers, I believe, see in Ahab an exceptional courage, endurance, strength of purpose, an admirable heroic willpower. But at the same time, it must be said that he is a destructive madman who has substituted egotism and self-love for the humility and self-abnegation of a true believer. Such a true believer in his God was Job, who, despite all his afflictions, which were much more serious than Ahab's, could still say, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him." Driven by a monomania that overpowers all reason and common sense, even the crewmen are swept up in the revenge hysteria of the captain, and all of them vow, "Death to Moby Dick!"

Pursuing our theme--the self, the importance of choice in its formation, and the roles that structure the activities of the self--it behooves us to probe more deeply into Captain Ahab and ask certain critical questions about a type of leader who takes his men into destruction by force of his own obsessive drive, his own monomaniacal will. Considering Ahab's character, it comes as a surprise to us to discover that he is a recently married man, husband to a sweet (if resigned) young girl, and that he has a young child. Prior to the amputation of his leg by Moby Dick, he evidently led an exemplary seaman's life. He is not without human feeling. Protectively, for example, he takes into his quarters, for a time, the deranged black cabin boy Pip. And indeed at one point, near the end, knowing the dread fatality toward which he is pushing his men, he drops a tear, a single tear, into the ocean. But whatever iota of compassion or human feeling is left, Ahab suppresses it in his bloodthirsty compulsion to revenge himself against the whale. Pip, who has worked upon his sympathies, is expelled from his cabin, and Ahab will consort only with the demonic figure Fedallah.

To what extent is Ahab's (or anyone's) name a determinant of selfhood? In Sartor Resartus--the style of which so manifestly influenced Moby-Dick--Thomas Carlyle comically remarks that if you name a child Diogenes Teufelsdreck, he will invent a clothes philosophy. Is a child subject to a determinism of events because of what a parent names it? Men have often believed that names are mystical or magical and do not merely denominate but also characterize an essential identity or even foretell one's destiny. I mentioned that Melville names Ahab after an Old Testament king. But as Ishmael rightly remembers it, the biblical Ahab was "a very vile one," the husband of the wicked Queen Jezebel. The biblical Ahab followed strange gods and was slain for his evil deeds. "When that wicked king was slain," Ishmael asks, "the dogs, did they not lick his blood?" His employer Peleg notes that Ahab had no hand in naming himself, and he orders Ishmael to "wrong not Captain Ahab, because he happens to have a wicked name .... No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities."(16) Still, the reader is alerted and warned that this king is to be associated with a great evil, the worship of a false god, and violent death.

I mentioned that Ahab had been a Quaker before his conversion to Zoroastrianism. Quakers are traditionally a nonviolent people. But Ahab is from Nantucket, where, Melville tells us, the pacifism of the faith has been "anomalously modified by things altogether alien and heterogeneous. For some of these same Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale-hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance."(16) The Christian religion, especially that of the Friends, avows the biblical truth of turning the other cheek. But it is clear that Ahab's anomalous Quakerism, with its assent to violence, had already predisposed the man to the violence of revenge.


Power corrupts, and absolute power is absolutely corrupting. This maxim seems likeliest to be true aboard a ship on the high seas, where, owing to the maritime law of many nations, the captain of a ship has absolute command. At the end of chapter 33, Melville suggests that Ahab unfairly exploits some of the customs and conventional usages that separate the captain from his crew. Historically considered, these customs have involved such things as the captain's living apart from his men and permitting no one else on the quarterdeck, or if allowed, demanding that the sailor's shoes be first removed. "Indeed," Melville writes, "many are the Nantucket ships in which you will see the skipper parading his quarter-deck with an elated grandeur not surpassed in any military navy; nay, extorting almost as much outward homage as if he wore the imperial purple, and not the shabbiest of pilot cloth.'(33) The novel suggests that Ahab demands observance of these minor customs for illegitimate reasons having to do with his diseased nature. The following passage indicates, I believe, how a vocational role--here the captain's--can shape an identity, transforming a simple whaler into a dictatorial personality:

That certain sultanism of his brain,

which had otherwise in a good degree

remained unmanifested; through those

forms that same sultanism became incarnate

in an irresistible dictatorship. For

be a man's intellectual superiority what

it will, it can never assume the practical,

available supremacy over other men,

without the aid of some sort of external

arts and entrenchments, always, in

themselves, more or less paltry and base.

This it is, that for ever keeps God's true

princes of the Empire from the world's

hustings; and leaves the highest honors

that this air can give, to those men who

become famous more through their infinite

inferiority to the choice hidden handful

of the Divine Inert, than through their

undoubted superiority over the dead

level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks

in these small things when extreme political

superstitions invest them, that in

some royal instances even to idiot imbecility

they have imparted potency. But

when, as in the case of Nicholas the

Czar, the ringed crown of geographical

empire encircles an imperial brain; then,

the plebeian herds crouch abased before

the tremendous centralization.(33)

Melville observes that the true princes of the earth scorn outward trappings. But he remarks that "the tragic dramatist who would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direct swing"(33) would have to take note of how dictatorial sultanism went hand in hand with Ahab's insistence on even petty signs of rank and privilege.

The desire for revenge may be a normai feeling in one who, like Ahab, has been hurt. But for most of us this is a transient feeling, and for those with a developed ethical sensibility, forgiveness is a resolution devoutly to be wished. But Ahab is not normal. He has, we learn, "a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature."(16) Melville evidently shared in the romantic notion about greatness that we find John Dryden voicing in "Absalom and Achitophel":

Great wits are sure to madness near


And thin partitions do their bounds


For we find Melville remarking that "all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease."(16) This much may be con fidently doubted, although there is no doubt that an obsession can be a stimulus to an extraordinary accomplishment.

In diagnosing this disease, Melville makes much of Ahab's estrangement from humanity. "Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it."(34, 206) If familiarity breeds contempt, Ahab's absence from the deck for weeks at a time inspires in his men not merely a curiosity but a reverential awe. And his obsessive drive induces in them a passivity that yields before the indomitable force of the man. The crewmen, with their own experience of evil in the world, likewise respond to Ahab's injury as if it were their own. Here is how Melville describes the trauma that drove the captain insane:

And then it was, that suddenly sweeping

his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him,

Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's leg,

as a mower a blade of grass in the field.

No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or

Malay, could have smote him with more

seeming malice. Small reason was there

to doubt, then, that ever since that most

fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a

wild vindictiveness against the whale, all

the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness

he at last came to identify with

him, not only all his bodily woes, but all

his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.

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 onehalf

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 personifled,

and made practically assailable in

Moby Dick.(41)

In his raging intellect, spurning the heart, human compassion, and sympathy--and even resisting his own "humanities"--Ahab is like Hawthorne's character Ethan Brand, whose inordinate growth of intellectual power was likewise unaccompanied by a matching moral sympathy. Both characters are instances of a failed equipoise of heart and head. Writing to Hawthorne about the short story "Ethan Brand" while he was at work on MobyDick, Melville said: "I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head. I had rather be a fool with a heart, than Jupiter Olympus with his head. The reason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust His heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch."

As with "Ethan Brand," the conclusion of Moby-Dick in violent death brings no transforming effect for Ahab. No purgation takes place, which in classical and Shakespearean tragedy relieves us of the emotions of pity and fear. Instead, we have a catastrophe in which the principals of the action are killed in a vain attempt to confront and challenge Moby Dick and his meaning. Only Ishmael survives. Counterpoised against the destructive quest of Ahab is the theme of Ishmael's gradual recovery from his suicidal or homicidal depression that first drove him to the sea. There is no space to discuss this theme here. But Ishmael's change is wrought largely though his friendship with the wise and kindly Queequeg, who teaches him the spiritual oneness and interdependence of all men: "It's a mutual joint-stock world in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians."(13)

Ishmael's escape on Queequeg's floating coffin is a dramatic affirmation of Melville's belief in our salvations being an interdependent matter, in the wisdom of the heart as opposed to the head, of reliance on the ethical sensibility over the arid rationalism of ends and means. It is an illustration of Melville's belief in the sympathy and interdependence that Ahab cursed and denied. In Ahab's quest we have a tragedy of the unregenerate will, revenge feeding upon itself, like the vulture feeding on the liver of Prometheus, until it destroyed everything in its path. Juxtaposed against Ahab's insane thirst for vengeance is the Old Testament truth: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."

(*) See Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or the Whale, eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newbery Library, 1988), chap. 28, p. 123. Because of the great number of editions of Moby-Dick, quotations will hereafter be cited parenthetically in the text, by chapter number.

James W. Tuttleton is professor of American literature at New York University.
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Author:Tuttleton, James W.
Publication:World and I
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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