“And whereas all the other things, whether beast or vessel, that enter into the dreadful gulf of this monster’s (whale’s) mouth, are immediately lost and swallowed up, the sea-gudgeon retires into it in great security, and there sleeps” (Montaigne. – Apology for Raimond Sebond).
This statement says a lot about Melville’s intentions for the characters of his novel. Ishmael originally decides to take up whaling as an endeavor because he is essentially lost and looking for a way to cast himself away. This excerpt can apply to him exceptionally well. He would basically find his “great security” in the consumption by a whale. It is like he is looking for a more honorable way to kill himself, and the whale would offer this great release for him by just ending it all. The great whale consumes anything that is in its path, and that thing will be destroyed. However, there are some situations, such as with the sea-gudgeon, where this consumption gives them something more than just death. Most of the men on Ahab’s ship follow him blindly due to their faith in him and the commitment they have made despite the fact he is clearly psychologically compromised and fully willing to risk the lives of his whole crew in order to kill Moby Dick. For some of them, they may also be looking for a release to death just like Ishmael. We do not necessarily know the sole purpose for joining the ship for a lot of these passengers so it is hard to say who is boarding as a death sentence.
On the other hand, Ahab is at a focal point in the story as it is his quest for vengeance that leads him to pursue a known and deadly sperm whale. He is a complicated character that often can lead to debates about what is actually important to him. His family seems to be important to him at times, but it does not stop his homicidal journey at any point. The main focus for him is getting revenge on the whale that injured him, and it seems to fuel his entire purpose for surviving that attack. However, I believe that he may be a deeper character than he seems at many points in the novel and the excerpt above may well apply to Ahab as well as Ishmael. The loss of a limb for a man who relies on adventure and collecting whales for living would surely affect his ability to perform his job well. It would also take a significant psychological toll. How would his family accept his new limb made of whale bone? It may be difficult to think of Ahab as a more emotional character, but I believe that he should be looked at in this light to properly place him with the excerpt above. Due to these circumstances and the aftermath of his encounter with Moby Dick, he may well be looking for this “great security” also. He has hunted whale for many years, and it is entirely possible that he lost his will to do so anymore when he lost his limb. When Ishmael first learns about Captain Ahab from Peleg and Bildad, they say that “I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; but he keeps close inside the house; a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so. In fact, he ain’t sick; but no, he isn’t well either … He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab – so some think – but a good one” (Melville 88). These two men know Captain Ahab from past experience so they would be able to preach for his character as “a good one.” It is clear by Ahab’s lack of appearance for the beginning of the voyage that he is in some pain, emotionally and physically. He isn’t necessarily sick, but he doesn’t want to show himself on the ship because of the fear it might entail to face his men. The “great security” for him would be that he no longer has to face his trauma to his men or his family. It seems natural to read the character of Ahab as a man pushing for revenge against an, almost, supernatural creature despite the interests and wellbeing of his crew. However, the excerpt above leads me to read Ahab as an emotionally compromised character who is searching for his release from the pain he is suffering. This point of view changes the vengeful character of Ahab into something completely different, and it allows the reader to view Ahab as a character driven to the brink by emotion who has no expectations of an endgame besides his own demise.