Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Depth of Ahab's Derangement

The extracts illuminated different ways to understand certain passages in Moby Dick. One such extracts was

The Larger whales, they seldom venture to attack. They stand in so great dread of some of them, that when out at sea they are afraid to mention even their names, and carry dung, brim-stone, juniper-wood, and some other articles of the same nature in their boats, in order to terrify and prevent their too near approach. (Troil’s).

This allowed the reader to fully understand the depth of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick first expressed in chapter 36.

Chapter 36, The Quarter Deck, is Captain Ahab’s first appearance on the Pequod. He starts off by asking seemingly meaningless questions about whaling that gets the crew all riled up, “marveling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions” (Melville 175). It then comes to light that it was Moby Dick who took of Ahab’s leg, “it was that accursed white whale that razeed me” (Melville 177). Quickly, Ahab gets the crew to agree to search for Moby Dick in order to avenge his own plight, “to chase that white whale…till he spouts black blood” (Melville 177). The crew readily agrees, still caught up in their “eagerness” (Melville 175) to please Ahab. Ahab even offers up a golden doubloon to whoever calls out for Moby Dick. This scene portrays the sole reason Ahab is seeking Moby Dick to be for revenge for the loss of his leg. He is willing to give up a gold doubloon and risk the lives of crew to kill what the cannibals reveal to be a most deadly whale. In the light of just the context of this chapter it is apparent that Ahab is, at the very least, a slightly disturbed man with a fixation on killing the white whale. The full depth of his all-consuming fascination becomes fully understandable with the aid of the extract.

This extract paints the picture of a wary, if not superstitious, whaling crews. It explains that many whaling ships don’t lower for extremely large whales, or whales that are known to be particularly damaging, such as Moby Dick. It also states that many ships even take precautions against the onslaught of such dangerous beasts. The reader is now aware that not every whaling captain holds vendettas against certain whales; in fact most whaling ships avoid such whales that have the destructive ability to cause such vendettas. In this light, Ahab’s mania seems all the more extreme. He differs from the other whaling captains in his capability to see reason. Other captains and crew see the reason behind picking one’s battles and weighing the potential loss over potential gain. Ahab, on the other hand, seeks one thing, and will do anything to attain his goal of killing Moby Dick. The reader is able to understand Ahab’s obsession with a new fire and fury that it didn’t have without the complete sense of how other whalers handle similar situations.

The knowledge this particular extract imparts about how other whalers react to dangerous whales helps inform the reader of the true depth of Ahab’s madness. At the same time, it also solidifies the idea that getting revenge for his lost leg and killing Moby Dick are eternally intertwined and, possibly, that the whole ideal of evil is intertwined with Moby Dick in the possessed mind of Ahab.


  1. You clearly understand that this extract is historical: it was written about a whaling voyage in Iceland in the 1770s. Melville is interested, as we've pointed out several times, in the *history* of whaling, which was a rapidly changing field (as he discusses at exhaustive length). The fact that "native" whalers in Iceland 80 years before the novel was written wouldn't have dared to chase Moby-Dick is relevant to our understanding of American/New England whaling as Melville portrays it - but is this here for comparison, or for contrast?

    In other words, the extract is there for a reason, but does it show us something about the crew of the Pequod directly, or through indirection? What I'd suggest is that it shows the boldness (or the insanity) of whaling in Melville's time; it shows us how much things have changed.

    That doesn't make your reading wrong, exactly - what I'm trying to suggest is that if those Icelandic whalers were relatively sane (or cowardly), and Ahab is totally brave (or insane), we might place "ordinary" American whalers at some point in between. But where?

    In other words, I think you're thinking only about Ahab in relationship with your extract, but you should be thinking about both Ahab and the extract in relationship with other whalers as well (Starbuck would be a great example, since he's supposed to be a cautious, sensible whaler).

  2. I think this is a great interpretation. The main suggestion I have is to maybe incorporate the text from Chapter 100; this chapter provides a good contrast between Ahab, "the unreasonable captain", and Boomer, "the reasonable captain".