Friday, April 1, 2011

Narcissism: Revision to Narcissism

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. Originating with Narcissus from Greek mythology, 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. While in this article, narcissism is easily shown through Melville’s fictional characters, we are interestingly able to discover some narcissism in Melville himself as well as gain more of an appreciation to 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, having every need fulfilled automatically. The child is omnipotent at this stage of the game. Then once the child enters the world is when this starts to change. What ruins 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). Some shifts of attention of the baby due to some reality checks, eventually leads to the formation of the ego ideal. 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 previously lost narcissism. This early ego ideal is more than unrealistic in the real world and sets a person up for misery and failure (Dyer 18).

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. A 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 another factor contributing to Ahab’s narcissism.

As there are many instances that shows Ahab’s narcissism, one instance that bluntly shows Ahab’s narcissistic attitude is while he is talking with Starbuck.
“Close! Stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon a God. By the greenland, by the hearth-stone! This is the magic glass man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye” (Melville 591).
This is an example of narcissistic delusion. Ahab truly believes he is of a God-like nature compared to Starbuck. That he is able to use his eyes as a crystal ball to the mortal world and especially his wife and child that he clearly forgot he has abandoned; a crippling characteristic of the narcissist to be unable to truly love another human. Ahab is believing in his own mad self-creation that ultimately leads him to the fate of Narcissus (Derail 22).
“Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungrapable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Melville 5).
A scene in the novel that directly relates Ahab to Narcissus is in the chapter “The Symphony”. Ahab leans over the ship and gazes into the water as he views his reflection to fade away into the water and all the while “he strove to pierce the profundity” (Melville 590). This then leads us to the simple fact that Ahab’s narcissism was what caused him to falter because he was unable to come to terms with the reality of life. He could not grasp that he was never going to conquer that white whale, in which the only way he was ever going to be hit with that reality was to be drowned in it to his fateful death.

While Melville exemplifies narcissism through the paralleling of Narcissus onto Ahab in the novel, there are some reasons to believe the author is a bit narcissistic himself. This causes me to believe that since Melville was a bit of a narcissist, that this was the reason he was able to create such a perfect character. A great example of this is that Melville viewed his novel Moby-Dick “but a draught- nay, but a draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” (Melville 157). This shows Melville’s desire for his book to be even better than what it is, (considering many view this novel as the greatest in American history) when it’s just close to impossible. He feels that reality is limiting him from reaching his aspirations. Also, Melville left a note on his desk to himself; “‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth’” inspiring him to stay on track with his unrealistic aspirations, especially when he felt he was struggling with his writing (Dyer 28).

Due to Melville’s first hand account with narcissism he is able to create the extreme character Ahab, and put forth the wild aspirations he contains, ultimately making Moby-Dick the compelling novel it is. Melville as an educated man, 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 knowledge and personal experience of Melville, beautifully created the brilliance and depth of Ahab’s narcissistic character.

Derail, Agnes, and Michel Imbert. "The Alchemical Marriage in Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale." Social Science Information: 1-24. University of Pittsburgh. Web. 30 Mar. 2011. .

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.


  1. The original draft was quite promising and interesting. This revision does build on that promise, and as far as it goes, I think it's good work, but I also think you stopped a little short.

    Both your greatest strength and your greatest difficulty involve your research. You give a clear, detailed explanation, based on your research, of what narcisissism is, and of why we might see it as playing a role in the novel; your brief discussions of Ahab's mother and Starbuck are especially well handled. What you don't do is clearly articulate your position or argument as either an extension of, or challenge to, your research, especially Dyer.

    Because your argument clearly follows in Dyer's footsteps, at least, you needed to clearly state what you want to add to her work, and then do it.

    One way of doing this (not the only way - it's just a thought) would have been to extend her biographical research. You're claiming, following her, that Melville himself may have been a narcissist. This is, at least within limits, a testable hypothesis - you could have worked with one of the many good Melville biographies out there.

    Or, alternatively, you could have extended your discussion of characters in MD - I might suggest Queequeg as a kind of anti-narcissist.

    Those are only ideas, meant to indicate that you seem to have stopped a little short, especially since you don't really clarify the exact relationship between your work and Dyer's.

  2. Hey Brittany,

    your essay definitely interested me, but like Adam said, you could've definitely taken it farther. You summarized your source very well and offered a lot of background that transitioned very well to the paragraph about Ahab's mother. I also really liked your conclusion, where you point out how much meaning there could be in a simply sentence. The problem was, I didn't really see much of what you thought about Dyer.

    When you started writing about Ahab's leg and its symbolism to castration, I couldn't help but remember that conversation we had in class about him actually getting castrated in his second, less-mentioned, incident. That would've been a great way to put your own voice into the essay. Also, when I was reading MD, especially near the end, I saw Ahab as anything but narcissistic, with all of his contemplation about being wrong about everything and regretting that he wasted most of his life at sea. I think you can find a lot of fresh passages that would counter some of Dyer's arguments.