Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ahab and the Insane

                “The sovereignest thing on earth is parmacetti for an inward bruise” King Henry.  Parmacetti is the pearly white, waxy, translucent solid, obtained from the oil in the head of the sperm whale: used chiefly in cosmetics and candles, and as an emollient.  Looking at this small quote it appears to offer some small psychological explanation for Ahab’s desire to seek and destroy the whale, besides the obvious desire for revenge, but perhaps a way to mend an internalized wound of the mind.  But this idea that Ahab is working through his problems in a seemingly rational way appears in direct contradiction to Ahab himself but the nature of man that Melville may be exploring in the text.  Early in the novel of Moby-Dick the narrator, Ishmael, makes his first friend on the journey towards the whale, Queequeg.  In Queequeg we see the marriage of the civilized and the uncivilized; he is a harpooning cannibal after all.  The entire passage in the inn where Queequeg is getting dressed presents a very strange marriage of these two groups, “he commenced dressing at top by donning his beaver hat…still minus his trowsers…he hunted up his boots…but his next movement was to crush himself-boots in hand, and hat on-under the bed” (Melville 31).  From the very beginning we area given the two extremes of society the modern based on rules of law and decency  and how one should behave to the most deplorable act a human being can commit by civilized standards, the consumption of another human being.
                Given the strange circumstances that these two characters come together and the polar extremes that are internalized within Queequeg Melville appears to be laying the ground works to explore this very dichotomy.  If the savage can become civilized so to can the civilized become savage, the potential exists within all of us both fictional and real.  We know that Captain Ahab is not in the “best of minds” and that this is a story of revenge upon the whale that had maimed him before so we have our unhinged civilized man and one can only assume the extremes to which he will go to achieve his goals.  This interplay of civilized savage plays out further with the name of the very ship they are to set sale upon, the Pequod.  As Ishmael is looking through the three ships that are available for a 3 year journey he comments on the Pequod, “you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, no extinct as the ancient Medes” (Melville 77).  A ship named for a tribe of extinct Indians, the savages of America tied to the civilized construction of a boat, with foreshadowing of coming events of the fate of the ship and its crew.  Later within the same chapter Ishmael talks with Captain Peleg about Captain Ahab and Peleg relates the information that despite his cursed name Ahab is a “good man-not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man” and that Ahab couldn’t be of evil stock because “by that sweet girl that old man has a child” (Melville 89).  Setting up Ahab as this “good family man” will serve to track his true fall into the savagery of his own motivations.  From this point forward all of Ahab’s actions will be related back to this point and every action he takes will be clouded under the concept of whether what he does is truly good or truly evil.  Melville appears to be setting up the circumstances with which the reader will be able to look back to the beginning of the novel and see the beginnings of the fall of Ahab.  This man is completely insane having become obsessed with his one desire for vengeance against the whale that took his leg.


  1. After reading your first paragraph I am pretty confused about what you are attempting to discuss in your essay. You begin with a discussion about Ahab and his possible motive for pursuing the whale, then you transition into a discussion about Queequeg and Ishmael and their contrasting characters and how the way Queequeg dresses is a contradiction. I feel as though if you are trying to relate the fact that Ahab’s motives, Queequeg and Ishmael’s relationship and Queequeg himself are all a marriage of opposites you should develop that idea a little more thoroughly in the introduction and make the connection a bit more explicit. Although I like many of the ideas you have in the second paragraph the speed at which you switch from analysis of Queequeg to analysis of Ahab makes the connections a bit more difficult to understand. I think a lot of the ideas you present are sound ones, but the jumps from one interesting contrast to another makes it extremely difficult to fully understand your argument and the paper as a whole. You deal with a lot of different points in this essay the only downfall is that you don’t give all of the ideas enough analysis to fully develop. I think if you narrowed some of your examples down and really honed your analysis it would be good for the clarity off your paper as a whole.

  2. It's hard to understand what you're doing here. I like the idea of the whale as intended to heal "inward bruises" just fine, but rather than working that out in detail, you drop it on and move on to the (presumably more interesting, but not at all rooted in the extracts) topic of civilized vs. savage. While that is undeniably a theme of the novel, your approach to it is not particularly well organized, such that I'd be hard pressed to really say what your argument is (or to put it very generally).

    Toward the end, I see a real flash of insight in the idea of Ahab as "good family man" - but if you want to do something with that, you need to handle it with some length / in some detail. You have what seems like a good handle on the text here overall - but it reads like it was written in haste, with a shifting and unclear argument throughout.