Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is full of unnoticeable meaning that must be analyzed and read carefully to be able to notice the great details. In the novel, Captain Ahab is extremely narcissistic. Narcissism deals with a conflict within a man having godlike aspirations but with the issue of reality being the inexorable setback to achieving their greatest desires (Dyer 15). But what causes a man to believe in such unrealistic aspirations? In the article I have read concerning this issue, “Narcissism in the Novels of Herman Melville” written by Susan K. Dyer, I have found many interesting points brought about which helps me to understand why Captain Ahab is an extreme narcissist and where narcissism roots from, as well as the brilliance of Herman Melville’s writing.
Narcissism first develops in the womb of a mother. The unborn child is at the center of its universe from day one; not having to worry about a thing and having every need fulfilled automatically while in its mother. The child is omnipotent at this stage of the game. Then once the child enters the world it is now in a state of primary narcissism due to the fact (in most cases) the baby is still the center of the universe, because the parents jump to fulfill every need of the baby, making the baby believe it still holds all power. What starts to ruin this all powerful state is the reality principle; when the mother doesn’t fulfill the baby’s needs at its first command. This will result in rage and even at times despair (Dyer 17). The first way to solve this problem is to shift attention. Instead of the attention being purely on the baby itself it shifts to believe that the mother is all powerful of the universe and that the baby believes it has full possession of the mother. Once the baby then realizes that this is not true either then the formation of the ego ideal is created.
The ego ideal is a Freudian concept that refocuses on the original narcissism of the child. The baby now focuses on what it wants to be, its highest aspirations towards perfection, it’s a restoration of the narcissism lost in childhood. The ego ideal develops through the longing to outdo the greatness of the parents and rid of the weakness the child harbors inside. This early ego ideal is more than unrealistic in the real world and sets a person up for misery and failure (Dyer 18). A person’s self-esteem is measured through the difference between the actual self and the ego ideal of oneself. The best outcome of these differences is that the reality of the world will break down the unrealistic ego ideal to a more realistic ego ideal to create a much better off person.
The average individuals growth in maturity usually creates the more realistic ego ideal but a lot of us are left with a bit of narcissism. There are two major disturbances that cause narcissism to reside in an individual. One major one occurs when the early idealization of the mother is destroyed in the child’s eyes. This causes a weak ego development causing the child to cling to the idea of itself being the center of the universe. Another example is when later on in life a person’s self esteem is hit hard and repeatedly, causing the individual to regress to its original omnipotence as described earlier (Dyer 19). Both of these situations cause major disturbances in the person’s life. “Any puncturing of this illusion (that the self is omnipotent and the universe is under its control) by the intrusion of reality provokes in him a violent fury the psychoanalysts label ‘narcissistic rage (Dyer 20).’”
This now leads us to the narcissistic Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. As stated in the novel through a conversation between Captain Peleg and Ishmael is how Ahab had “a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother, who died when he was only a twelvemonth old (Melville 88).” This gives us a much greater insight into Ahab. One reason for Ahab’s narcissism is due to the early idealization of his mother being completely ruined due to her dieing when he was only a year old; causing Ahab to retreat to believing he, himself, is the center of the universe. The other main reason Ahab is narcissistic can be stemmed from the losing of his leg. Ahab losing his leg to a whale, is as close as Melville could possibly come to making Ahab suffer from castration without actually explicitly castrating him. Castration is the ultimate blow to a mans self esteem (Dyer 20). This is the second main reason why someone would be a narcissist and now Ahab has both of the biggest reasons contributing to his narcissism.
Melville is an educated man who puts the greatest meaning behind all of his words in the novel. Who would have thought that one mere simple sentence about Ahab’s mother would have as much meaning to say that this is the reason why Ahab is the narcissistic person he is? Melville creates intricate characters with such minute details that the lackadaisical reader would never notice. The scientific knowledge that Melville contains beautifully created the brilliance and depth of Ahab’s character.
Dyer, Susan K. "Narcissism in the Novels of Herman Melville." Psychiatric Quarterly 65.1 (1994): 15-30.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 1992.