Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The King and the Captain

I believe that Melville chose the name Ahab for the Captain to show that he is a cursed man. Like his namesake, he is doomed to die because of his overconfidence and obsession. Captain Ahab is portrayed as an overly obsessed captain attempting to get revenge against the whale that took his leg. He believes that this whale is the embodiment of evil and that it is his destiny to kill it. We can see the majority of the Captain’s character traits are taken from the Biblical King Ahab; this is to alert readers to the fact that their stories will end in a similar manor. Melville models Captain Ahab after the biblical king to foreshadow his characters fate to his readers.  But to understand Captain Ahab’s character we must first understand King Ahab’s character through analysis of his story as it is told in the Bible.
King Ahab of the Bible was a relentless, egotistical, tyrant. He and his wife Jezebel were greedy, they took what they wanted and they would do anything it took to get it. One day Ahab began to lust after a certain vineyard. The king offered Naboth, the owner of the vineyard, the choice between a better vineyard somewhere else or the monetary worth of his vineyard. When Naboth refused Ahab was infuriated, he became so obsessed with owning the vineyard that he and his wife framed Naboth and sentenced him to death by stoning. Thus the king, through his monomania, received what he wanted, but as we continue to read the story we see that it comes at a grave cost.[1] 
The similarities in character between King Ahab and Captain Ahab are impossible to disregard. Even Ishmael draws attention to the obvious comparison when he hears his name “When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (88 Melville) I believe that Melville deliberately attempts to highlight these similarities in order to show that both people will share the same fate.  Like King Ahab, Captain Ahab shows an unmistakable hubris. This overconfidence defines them both, and is coupled by a sense of entitlement. Captain Ahab thinks he deserves and is destine to kill Moby Dick in the same way that King Ahab believes he is entitled to anything possessed by anyone in his kingdom. Both believe that they can do as they please and that no one and nothing can stop them. This obsession ultimately leads to King Ahab’s downfall, in the end his death is directly related to his greediness and overconfidence. That is why Melville decides to name the Captain after King Ahab, to show that he will die for the same reasons.
To fully understand the parallels between King Ahab of the Bible and Captain Ahab of the Pequod I think it is necessary to discuss the prophecies told about them. Uncoincidentally both profits are named Elijah but they each get their messages across in different ways. When Elijah of the Bible is alerted to what King Ahab does to Naboth he prophesizes to the king “And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the LORD, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the LORD, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine.” (1 Kings 21:19[2]).  Just as the prophet foretold, later Ahab went to a battle at Ramoth, and was killed by an misfired arrow, and  while his chariot was being clean, dogs came and licked up his blood. The prophet Elijah foretold that because of Ahabs greedy, unimodal obsession that he would die and this indeed came to pass. In a similar way the Elijah of Moby Dick foretells Captain Ahab’s fate but in a much more ambiguous manor.
As Ishmael and Queequeg are preparing to board the ship they come across an old, ragged, seemingly crazy man named Elijah. Elijah begins to ramble on about the ship it’s captain and the lore around them both when he finally makes and eerie statement that functions as his prophesy in the novel. “Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity 'em!” (102 Melville) This statement confuses Ishmael and Queequeg, but as we continue to read the novel and understand more about Captain Ahab’s character Elijah’s prophecy’s meaning becomes all to clear. Here Elijah is foretelling the death of Ahab the same way the prophet Elijah of the Bible did, he is just being much less explicit. When he says some sailors or others must go with him, he doesn’t mean go with him on this voyage but go with him to his watery grave. Captain Ahab will die for the same reasons that King Ahab did, because of his unwavering greed, compulsion and monomania. This is why I believe that Ahab will die and take the ship and it crew along with him, because of his blind obsession and overconfidence. Melville uses the name of his character to show that he is predestine to fail because of his own obsession
As we can see Melville wants us to draw comparisons between the Ahab of his novel and the Ahab of the bible. So, similar to the Biblical Ahab, we see Captain Ahab coveting something that he isn’t entitled to and that will not necessarily benefit him in the long run. His obsession will cause him to be ignorant to his irrationalities and he will attempt to achieve his goal by any means. In the end we will see Captain Ahab’s obsession be the cause of his demise just like King Ahab did. This is what Melville wants us to see, that Captain Ahab is fated to bring his own doom upon himself.

[1][2] The Holy Bible: King James Version. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 2001.


  1. I think you've done a great job illustrating the connections between the Ahab of moby dick and the
    Ahab of the bible. I thought it was especially interesting that Meliville made the parallels between the bible's prophecies and Ahab and what Elijah says to Queequeg and Ishmael. So far I think that you have a great foundation to build an interesting argument on; so what exactly will that argument be? You clearly illustrate that Melville has created intensely close parallels between the Ahab of the bible and the Ahab in Moby Dick, and how this might be a prediction of Ahab's fate--but why exactly are Melville's motivations for doing this? We already have the parable of King Ahab in the bible, so why does Melville feel the need to reiterate it? What purpose do all of these biblical parallels serve Melville and his story? And what does it mean that these parallels between the bible coexist and interact with each other, i.e. Ishmael being a member of of Ahab's crew? I think perhaps a good starting point for an argument would be to observe the differences from the bible's Ahab and the Ahab of the bible, and why Melville made these changes and what they could signify. Overall, I think you have a great foundation to build something really interesting upon!

  2. Following Mia - you clearly go through the basic parallels that Melville sets up. But you do it all in a fairly wordy way - your introduction, especially, is almost wholly unnecessary, and elsewhere there was plenty of room for trimming, which would have freed up space. Space for what?

    Mia suggests exploring Melville's motivations. I'm on board with that, although it would be fine to get to the motivations by way of some other, less basic questions.

    For instance: can we do anything with the likeness you are trying to establish between the vineyard and the whale? A Ahab demands a Jezebel - why don't we have one? Can we do anything to work with any of the related details of Elijah's story? Etc.

    In other words, you cover the basic parallels, but to a point of excess. You had the space to move beyond the basics, to do more interpretation, or to at least explore what's going on with differences as well as sameness...

    1. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.....As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of respose in that creature....This elusive quality....Now, in allusion to the white, silent stillness of deth in the shark, and the mild deadliness of his habits....Therefore, in his other moods, symbolise whatever grand or gracious thing he wll by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profundest idealised significance, it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

  3. It is this apparition of evil and mystery that Captain Ahab would not only avenge himself, but understand. Why is it white, Ishmael wonders, and why does it
    appeal with such power to the soul, and more strange and far more portentous--why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christians' Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensify agent in things the most appalling to mankind.
    It is the "invisible spheres" that Ahab seeks to comprehend in his revenge against the whale. When Starbuck tell him, "To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous," Ahab replies,
    Hark ye yet again--the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the doubted deed--there,, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the White Whale is that wall, shoved near to me....He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the White Whale agent...I will wreak that hate upon him....Truth hath no confines.

  4. The preternatural White Whale wears the "pasteboard mask" that Captain Ahab is obsessed with striking through. He would know what metaphysical meaning lies behind this creatures eye that cannot see before him, but only sideways from his head. Revenge against him for his lost leg is a small part of what Ahab seeks; thePequod's voyage is a metaphor for life and Ahab is man searching for meaning.

  5. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.” Mahatma Gandhi “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” St. Augustine “Live well. It is the greatest revenge.” The Talmud The Tragedy of Revenge: In the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is obsessed with seeking revenge on the white whale, Moby Dick. His long struggle results in the death and destruction of the entire crew, except for Ishmael, the storyteller. Unfortunately the destruction described in this fictional account is too often an accurate account of revenge in the real world.
    Have you ever felt humiliated, insulted and injured by something someone said? Perhaps it happened at work. Perhaps it was a neighbor who made a remark that you found demeaning. Perhaps a perfect stranger made a sarcastic remark as the two of you passed one another in the street. I have seen these things happen. For example, a bearded orthodox Jew in black hat and robes is called a “Dirty Jew” by some young punk who passes him in New York City. A black family entering their car hears someone call out a racial slur from a passing car. These and other types of scenarios conjure up dark passions and vengeful fantasies of violence against the perpetrators. In the moment after the offensive act occurs, we think we want bloody revenge because, at that moment, we suffer wounded pride. However, most of us “cool down” and let the incident fade from memory. Others cannot let go and want to fight for revenge. Captain Ahab suffered the loss of his leg when he and his crew were whale hunting and came across the great white whale, Moby Dick. Not only did this whale escape from Ahab but he took Ahab’s leg with him. Thereafter, Ahab swore revenge against Moby Dick. In fact, he was completely obsessed with finding Moby Dick and killing him. The image of Ahab is of a ship’s captain who has a scarred face and limps on a peg leg as a result of the struggle with Moby Dick. In all, this image is of a man who is twisted by hatred. There are many ways to understand this classic novel by Herman Melville and one of them has to do with the struggle between good and evil. In this case, it is Ahab who is so dominated by evil that he takes his ship, himself and his crew to their deaths.

  6. There are some who will insist that consequences make no difference in the quest for revenge. However, I believe these vengeful people are thinking in terms of physical consequences, such as imprisonment. As portrayed my Herman Melville, the consequences suffered by Ahab were not that he lost his life but that he lost his entire perspective on life and over estimated how it would feel to succeed.
    Some pieces of recent research show that revenge does not help the vengeful person to feel any better.
    So, why do some people become obsessed by thoughts and fantasies of revenge while others do not? The answer lies partly in how resilient a person is and how firm and intact their ego is. In other words, the more a person feels humiliated by an injustice committed against them, the more likely they are to become obsessed by fantasies of revenge. This is because the person feels as though his/her very dignity as a human being has been compromised and feels so defeated that they cannot let the notions of vengeance go.
    In this lies the problem of revenge. While it might seem that a vengeful act would restore one’s pride, it doesn’t because that pride was not damaged by the insult. That damage was inflicted long ago, probably in the way that person was raised as a child. Growing up with abuse, authoritarian parents, conflict at home, chaos, deprivation and neglect are some of the ingredients that help produce a human being with limited resilience and poor ego strength.

  7. Today, as part of the movement called “Positive Psychology,” the focus is forgiveness. The process of forgiveness is not only directed at the target of one’s anger but, even more importantly, at onesself, as a way of letting go of angry, depressing and hateful feelings.