Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is regarded in some circles as the culminating masterpiece in his repertoire of whaling memoirs. Drawing upon the history and fiction of other whaling literature, Melville incorporates the knowledge and points of view of hundreds of authors before him. But these references do not act as mere quotations within Melville’s novel; each holds its own importance in directing the reader on how to interpret the complexities of Moby Dick. One such quotation taken from Richard Strafford’s letter from the Bermudas begs the reader to call into question and examine the motives of the voyage of the Pequod ; that it was not driven by the “monomania” of Ahab, but the collective madness held by each man of the crew.

In his letter Strafford states, “Myself have agreed to try whether I can master and kill this Sperma-ceti whale, for I could never hear of any of that sort that was killed by any man.” While this quotation is most readily and easily applied to Ahab’s mission to capture his foe, it is important to remember that these excerpts must also hold importance for Ishmael and the rest of the crew as it is told from his point of view. When analyzing Strafford’s statement as something of great importance to the entire crew (as it should be), we may interpret that each whaler aboard the Pequod was filled with the same ambition to capture what no man before had been able to, an impossibility that was both understood and embraced. With the knowledge of an almost guaranteed failure there of course comes the question as to why the crew agreed to set out on the voyage in the first place, the answer to which lies within the circumstances by which they were drawn to whaling. As “a crew…chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals” (Melville 197), these men clearly had nothing left for them on shore. Joining the crew of the Pequod was without doubt an act of desperation as it was widely known that the life of a whaler wasn’t an entirely pleasant one, but the decision was nonetheless made by each crew member because it provided them with a purpose they lacked ashore.

In this way, every man was driven by the same madness that is usually uniquely identified with Captain Ahab. It was not that “at times his hate seemed almost theirs” (197) but that this hate of the whale was the hate of the entire crew. Though the source of the mania in every case was not the revenge sought by Ahab, it was the same obsession mentioned by Strafford to complete what those before them could not achieve and it was a desire to prove themselves in ways they were incapable during their lives on land. The knowledge of past failures and the high improbability of success was no deterrent for this crew or any crew like theirs, it was conversely their motivation. And while the motivation to complete the Pequod’s mission was full of tenacity throughout the entirety of the voyage, it was its non-unified and delirious nature that caused the journey to repeat the failures of their predecessors.

In part of his narration of the voyage, Ishmael states “nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself” (336), admitting for himself and the rest of the crew that their voyage was driven by a misguided fanaticism. Although the crew members were indeed motivated to capture the illusive whale, they were guided to do so by a force so deceptive that it doomed their success from the very beginning. Though truly mad with the desire to find acceptance and prove their worth, the whalers were fooled by their own minds into thinking the objective solely fell to capturing the White Whale. As Ishmael later remarks, “human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing” (196) that completely consumed and encompassed the crew so that their means to reach their final objective ultimately became their strongest inhibitor, destining them for the same failure they were trying to overcome.

Although each ultimately desired to achieve the same goal, their individual insanities rendered them incapable of combining their efforts to aid one another in succeeding. The individual gain of self-worth, revenge, or even money for each crew member eventually came to outweigh the sum of the crew effort, making the attainment of the final objective impossible. Though the voyage of the Pequod is most popularly identified with Ahab’s purposes of seeking revenge, Richard Strafford’s quote shows us that a similar mania was alive within the souls of every crew member aboard the ship. It is essential to weigh the motives of every whaler with equal significance to those of Ahab’s in order to fully understand the failures of the Pequod’s voyage.


  1. I liked both your quote and your approach, which includes a fairly detailed analysis of the *general* madness of the crew. I essentially agree with you, and I find this approach important: when asking how Ahab is able to dominate, it's not enough to simply say that he is strong, and able to exert his will; we need to understand why the crew (especially mates and harpooners) are susceptible to that will.

    Your general discussion is good. I think it would have been strengthened greatly, though, by a detailed analysis of how *one* (two?) person shares in Ahab's madness, at least enough to be drawn in by it. Ishmael is the easy candidate here, and probably the best- Stubb would be another excellent choice. Exploring the general phenomenon through one or more individuals seems like it might be the most promising approach for revision.

  2. I like your writing style, first and foremost. I am not convinced in your argument of the crew's motivation. Why would they want to die? I think your point of proving themselves holds ground, but the crew of renegades and ragamuffins have been conditioned their entire lives to survive. I would have to agree with your first and later points - that Ahab's propaganda is the selling point.

    I agree with Adam, an in depth analysis of the mania of one individual would greatly help your point come across.