“‘CRUCIFIXION IN HIS FACE’: AHAB AS A FIGURE REDEEMED.”
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquerable whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! This I give up the spear!” (Melville 559).
Spoken before throwing the last spear at the great white whale, Ahab’s final words possess the madness that has twisted a man beyond his own mortal limits. Although the narrator of Moby Dick is Ishmael, the emphasis of characterization falls upon the lap of Captain Ahab. It is Ahab’s darker half of the human soul which pushes the narrative forward. While Ishmael serves as the neutral observer and the lone survivor, Ahab’s psychological and metaphysical battle with the whale becomes the reader’s focus. Ahab’s search exists beyond the boundaries of human existence and crosses into the metaphysical. Ahab’s quest spawns from hate, and, therefore, cannot be quenched.
While Ahab pursues the unattainable, Ishmael also searches. Ishmael describes himself to be “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote” (Melville 15) and yearns for a great voyage on the water. When asked for the purpose of his sea quest, he only responds “Well, sir, I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world!” (Melville 69). Ishmael believes that redemption of the soul exists somewhere beyond land. Ishmael quests for something that he cannot perceive – he only knows that he exists in a state of emptiness: Ishmael is a wanderer of the world. Ishmael and Ahab board the same whaling vessel in search of two very different epiphanies and Ishmael, being the only survivor, lives to tell the tale of his captain’s demise. Ishmael views Ahab’s adventure to pursue and murder the white whale which tore the captain’s leg from the body. Because of this, Moby Dick’s narrator paints Ahab to be a man bent of vengeance that, in his final moments, fell victim to his hatred and therefore never achieves emancipation from his hate.
Herman Melville’s epic masterpiece Moby Dick is the story of two men venturing to sea in search of the elusiveness answer to all questions: what is the purpose of mankind? To Ishmael, the question has a simple answer: go out to sea and get away from all things man to find direction in life. To Ahab, the answer exists beyond the sanity of man and is wrapped in the dark corners of the human mind. These two representations of man mirror that of the writer, a man torn between two conflicting personalities and a man at odds with himself. It would appear that Ishmael, after his rescue from the tranquil sea, has quenched his desire to seek refuge from life’s directionless-ness and has become a redeemed figure. When studying the context of Moby Dick, Ishmael achieves little epiphany from his travails; instead it is Ahab, the contorted soul of a sea captain, who inevitably finds redemption somewhere in the bottom of the sea.
The Jungian archetype of water as a representation of the human soul comes as no stranger to literary scholars. Throughout the literary canon, Jungian archetypes have successfully united texts from multi-cultural backgrounds as well as bridged and linked the world’s literature from the first cave drawings to contemporary literature. It is no surprise that Melville, when contemplating the purpose of mankind and his relationship with God, would put his two explorers into the sea: away from all things man and back into the bestial waters of man’s origin.
It becomes necessary to define the motivation for both Ahab and Ishmael in order to understanding each other’s redemptions. Ahab ventures beyond the world of mankind to insert himself into a foreign world where he doesn’t naturally belong: the sea. Ahab disassociates himself from natural man and bounds outward into the abyss of natural nothingness: a wasteland of nature. For Melville, the sea in Moby Dick was the materialistic world formed and defined through an idealistic lens (Post-Lauria 306). The novel’s sea depicts the unknowingly different – all places unfamiliar to society. While Ishmael’s journey begins with the wonders of the sea and the search for meaning, Ahab’s journey is far more menacing.
In his essay "The Shadow of Moby Dick", John Halverson says that for Ahab “the ocean is the ‘dark Hindoo half of nature’ and an infidel queen as well; he begins his spiritual journey on the unconscious sea with a profound sickness of soul. Whereas Ishmael’s sickness is a vague, indefinite gloominess and dissatisfaction, Ahab’s is sharply defined demonic possession” (441). Halverson defines Ahab’s tormented soul by comparing it to Jungian archetypical symbols. Although he admits that Jungian psychotherapy predates that of Moby Dick, Halverson finds Melville’s role as an “observer of mankind” to be a forerunner to the scientific study (442). Halverson quotes Melville “it is no pleasing task, nor a thankful one, to dive into the soul of some men; but there are occasions when, to bring up the mud from the bottom, reveals to us on what soundings we are, on what course we adjoin” (436). Melville portrays Ahab as the empty side of the human soul; he is the primitive half, bound to the rules of man but lives beyond the expectations of his own humanity. Ahab believes that he “stand[s] alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors” (Melville 541). Ahab’s twisted logic and his separation from humanity has lead to self-isolation. Halverson writes that Ahab’s separation from humanity exists within his own separation from his “Eros,” or his ability to relate to his fellow man (Halverson 441).
The opposite of Ahab is Ishmael, whose journey begins out of wonder and the willingness to learn and embrace the burgeoning world. Ishmael’s journey, similar to Ahab, is a spiritual quest to achieve salvation of his soul. Ishmael keenly observes the intricacies of his cannibal companion Queequeg noticing:
With much interest I sat watching him. Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face – at least to my taste – his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tatooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simplest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils. (Melville 67-8)
Ishmael’s ability to view humanity in the eyes of the “noble savage” mirrors that of the author. Similar to Melville, Ishmael peers into the soul of his fellow companions and can comprehend the goodness within all men.
The young Melville, a bookish-scholar who took to the seas to seek adventure and a fortune, observed the people of the South Seas, noted their individualisms which ought to be deemed “cultured” by Europeans and Americans. Melville spent these years penniless and distraught having never grasped the success of a whaler. He took note of his years at sea and cultivated them into fictional travel memoirs such as Mardi (1846) and Typee (1846). Although successful, these novels did not satisfy the keen-eyed writer; they were not equal to that of his colleagues.
Melville’s observations in Typee and Omoo took an immediate interest from the reading public. Americans were on the verge of recognizing their strength as a country and as a colonial power and travel narratives establishing the European descendents’ status as a superior culture were considered fanciful and purchased by hungry readers. The starving Melville, unsuccessful at whaling and teaching, wrote to is friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne describing his previous literary works as “two jobs, which I have done for money – being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood” (Patel i). His previous writings were nothing more than travel logs dipped into the syrup of fiction; Melville catered to the wanting public. Giving them a glimpse of what they craved: stunning stories of white Europeans/Americans adventuring into new worlds, discovering new peoples and cultures untouched by ivory hands, and gaining ground in their colonial ambitions. Melville felt these stories, although successful, to be less than literature and not of equal value to that as his infamous neighbor, friend, and mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville, by dedicating Moby Dick to his friend, sought to write a novel equal to that of Hawthorne, hearty in philosophical speech and thick in humanity’s quest for the soul and salvation. Melville’s inability to tap into his subconscious and write a text equal to his contemporary colleagues celebrated works, many which would become icons of American literature: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and the aforementioned Hawthorne, left a gaping hole in Melville’s life. Melville yearned to publish one other story: the story of his dark self where he could tap into man’s soul and narrate a tale of great adventure and philosophical might (Myers 21). In 1851, Melville wrote to Hawthorne stating that “Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar… I shall be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned – it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches” (Busch viii). As Melville ventured on a whaling ship in search of self-discovery, he would portray Ishmael in Moby Dick. Melville possessed an unwavering intentness to capture the meaning of his writing. Melville began this story by taking on a moniker, “Call me Ishmael” he wrote. Melville being the true narrator, in Moby Dick, is Ishmael.
When Ishmael places his keen, all-observing eye on Ahab and peers into the soulless captain, Melville presents the antithesis of humanity. When Ahab emerges from his solitary captain’s quarters, Ishmael shivers at the sight of the captain. Ishmael cautiously observes and notices Ahab’s bone-white artificial leg; he is told that Ahab lost his appendage off the Sea of Japan, comparing the missing limb to the missing mast of his ship. Ishmael notices that Ahab must fasten the sperm whale bone-crafted leg into a hole in the ship to steady himself. Ahab, in the eyes of Ishmael, has become another part of the ship – an object being controlled; he stares across the bow, transfixed on his elusive prey. Ahab exists as human shell; similar to the rudder that steers the ship or the sail that pushes the ship forward, Ahab exists purely as a cog in the machine of the sea. Fastened to the boat, Ahab is humanity-less. Ishmael notices how the deckhands stay away from the captain and how “moody stricken Ahab stood before then with a crucifixion in his face;” Ahab has crucified his humanity in exchange for his hunt (Melville 137). Similar to Melville who traded his successful writing career to search for the soul of man, Ahab, bent on vengeance and selfish redemption, trades his whaling career, foregoing the financial treasure of his voyage, to hunt down the unattainable whale.
Moby Dick’s central characters, Ishmael the observer/narrator and Ahab the vengeful captain, both exist in the novel as manifestations of the writer himself. While Ishmael embodies all the goodness of Melville, his inexperience and the wonder of his youth, Ahab is the opposite. Ahab rears the fervor of the author never capturing the creative element he sought, his mind twisted on capturing a figurative whale just out of reach but wielded by his friends and colleagues: the success and notoriety as a writer of romance such as Hawthorne. Melville produces the “duality of man” – similar to Halverson’s shadow, Ahab is Melville’s Ego – the unflinching and unwavering part of his psyche that exists only to push him into the darkness of humanity. Ishmael is the writer’s Eros – his connection to humanity.
Ahab’s presence within the novel eclipses Ishmael’s narration. The reader is pulled into the story of Ahab because he is the more powerful and dominating character in the text. A reader may dismiss Ishmael’s narrative voice all together and drown in the imagery and the abyss of the darker personage. Quoted by Anthony S. Mercatante in his book Good and Evil, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides defined evil as “negations… It cannot be said of God that He directly creates evil… this is impossible. The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves.” Ahab self-embodies evil; it is his overwhelming desire of destruction which creates evil. Ahab dominates the narrative due to man’s overwhelming desire to rationalize evil. From Faust’s "Mephistopheles", Dante’s torments of Hell and his three-headed beast in mockery of the Holy Trinity, and Genesis’ corrupting serpent, man has longed to identify with and define the evil of man. Evil is inhuman while Good is human. In Moby Dick the personification of evil exists within Ahab, while the negation of this evil exists in Ishmael. While the Good narrates the story in the form of Ishmael, it is Evil, Ahab, who is the principle actor. Ahab overshadows Ishmael causing the reader to often forget that the speaker is in fact a character of the novel and not a disembodied voice – it often goes unnoticed that Ishmael falls into the water during the Peqoud’s final battle with the whale (Myers 21). The two characters together form one ideal being – a balance: the balance which the tormented Melville sought as veraciously as his Ahab sought the whale.
If both Ishmael and Ahab exist within Moby Dick as two separate embodiments of Melville, his humanity and his inhumanity, or his innocence and his inadequacies, which side is redeemed if either? To answer this, we must return to Jungian archetypes. To Jung, the water of the sea exists as the unknown: the unforeseen future and the ungraspable past. Water is the “womb of the world” (Campbell 90) and the hero, instead of conquering his unknown, mustw be swallowed and consumed by it. Joseph Campbell, in his groundbreaking essay The Hero with a Thousand Faces wrote of the importance of the swallowing action to achieve atonement. Campbell claims that “the idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (90). Campbell further states that self-annihilation is a necessary action in all stories of redemption. Instead of conquering fears by destroying it, the hero must willingly enter the belly of the beast and leave the visible and materialistic world. Similar to a worshipper entering a temple, Campbell states, where he confronts his own immortality, recognizing his existence as one of “dust and ashes” (91).
Which side of Melville deserves redemption, Ishmael or Ahab, and to what form is this redemption served? It is safe to say that Ishmael, upon his rescue aboard the Rachel, has found his salvation of the boring land life. Thusly, the life of sea-servitude and adventure which he sought in the beginning of the book has been quenched and he will return to a sea-wary life safely at port. Melville closes the novel with Ishmael calling himself “another orphan” floating in the sea. Ishmael is parentless, unguided and alone, floating in the sea of his soul. Ishmael may no longer be seeking his fate, but he has not reached salvation.
Ahab is truly redeemed at the end of his three day epic battle with Moby Dick. Twisted Ahab sets out in a harpoon boat to confront his nemesis. As he makes his way to the sea beast, it disappears under the black water. Ahab patiently waits, scanning the waters for his prey. When the crew turns the boat to confront the whale at the bow, the whale attempts to swallow the boat. This is Ahab’s first opportunity at redemption. The whale opens its cathedral maw “within six inches of Ahab’s head” to devour the captain and his men, yet Ahab yields. Ahab rests in the mouth of the whale but fights back. Melville describes the scene:
At that moment his hand had made one final effort to push the boat out of the bite. But only slipping further into the whale’s mouth, and tilting over sideways as it slipped, the boat had shaken off his hold on the haw; spilled him out of it, as he leaned to the push; and so he fell flat-faced upon the sea. (Melville 537)
Despite his thrashings, Ahab’s resistance to the “mouth which he hated” is moot. The monomaniacal Ahab stands at the threshold of Campbell’s “magical threshold” yet is unable to identify it. Ahab believes that his salvation lies within the conquering and slaying of his beast, similar to that of a gallant knight slaying a dragon and does not commit to self-annihilation. As the failed crew drifts in the water, the white whale circles, taunting the crew of its power.
To depict Ahab standing at the precipice of salvation brings two startling realizations to mind: 1) as previously stated, in order for Ahab to attain salvation, he must first resist the desire to conquer the unconquerable and willingly enter the belly of the beast, and 2) that if Melville did intend for Ahab to reach a form of redemption, this would allude that Ahab is indeed the hero of the novel. Readers center themselves Ahab’s vengeance and his disassociation with humanity and fail to recognize the character’s attempt and reconnection. Ahab serves as a literary tragic hero: he confronts all foes with unwavering courage and stands before the same Leviathan which crippled him from a previous battle and it is unwavering resolve to conquer his unconquerable foe that leads to his felix culpa. Melville’s tragic view of life is supplanted into Ahab’s “lostness.”
Ahab’s story is a tragedy, yet a tragedy falling into self-discovery. At the end of the novel, Ahab and the crew are tossed into the ocean and sucked to the bottom of the sea in the form of a vortex. Ahab re-enters the earth’s womb, re-enters the soul of man, re-enters the sea.
On the second day, the crew awakes and once again scans the sea’s surface for the spouting of the white whale. Once again, Ahab enters the unknown waters of the sea and ventures out to conquer his foe. Ahab and his men thrust tow lines into the whale and attempt to haul the beast to the awaiting Peqoud. But the whale proves too strong and twists the lines, wrenching the boats and violently spilling them and their crew into the abyss of the water. Ahab again floats in the soul of man having failed at controlling the beast. Ahab makes a critical adjustment in his madness after the second day; he begins to question the purpose of the whale.
“And as mechanical,” muttered Ahab. Then as the men went forward, he muttered on: “The things called omens! And yesterday I talked the same to Starbuck there, concerning my broken boat. Oh! How valiantly I seek to drive out of others’ hears what’s clinched so fast in mine!... There’s a riddle now might baffle all the lawyers backed by the ghosts of the whole line of judges: -- like a hawk’s beak it pecks my brain. I’ll, I’ll solve it, though!” (Melville 549).
Ahab’s monomaniacal quest is no longer that of a slayer. On day two of his battle with the white whale he begins to seek understanding of the whale. On the previous day, Ahab refused to enter the mouth of the whale; therefore he refused to enter the unknown abyss of his prey. By his refusal, he also refuses to seek the understanding of the creature. At the end of the second day of hunting, he begins to come to grips with the notion that he is not the controller of his little universe. Although the egoist is still present, Ahab has had a small epiphany: he must not only kill the whale, but understand the hunt itself as a source of discovery (Myers 28). The overwhelming force of nature for Ahab, exists not to be slain, but to be comprehended. Campbell writes that “anyone unable to understand a god, sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach” (92). The white whale is Ahab’s devil, the thing that taunts him and reminds him of his inabilities to attain his soul’s desires, but yet it is that same docile whale which grants Ahab the opportunity of redemption – an example of Campbell’s god/devil paradox. Ahab’s final test occurs on day three.
On the third day of the chase, Ahab calmly pulls his small harpoon boat aside the stern of the great, meek white whale. The whale seems tolerant to Ahab’s approach. This is a crucial test of Ahab’s piety. If Ahab had been a thinking man, if the second day of his chase with Moby Dick had completed his spiritual quest, then Ahab would have recognized his limited existence within his little universe. Ahab admits this himself on the morning of the third day when he speaks of himself in the third person:
“Here’s food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never things, he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! To think’s audacity! God only has that right and privilege” (Melville 551).
At this point in the narrative, Ahab should have recognized his humanity and, in a moment of clarity, achieved redemption through self-recognition of his own place in the cosmos. However, it is the Ishmael-ian half who possesses Melville’s gift of peering into man’s soul and seeing the hidden truths and troubles, not the tormented Ahab-half of Melville. Ahab, if he had the insight of Ishmael, would have pulled along side the godly beast and admitted his place in the cosmos, but Ahab instead takes one last attempt at conquering his whale. The result is the destruction of Ahab, his crew, and his boat: the very mechanics of Ahab, his presence, his identity is swallowed into the sea. Ahab re-enters the mother womb, embraced into the sea, taking his madness and his ego deep into the soul of man.
At this point in the novel, Ishmael is no longer recognized as a speaker. The Ishmael-ian Melville, the goodness of mankind and the quizzical side of Melville, has disappeared. The reader forgets that he or she is reading a narrative of a character who exists. Instead, Melville is wrapped in his Ahab-ic journey. The manifestation of Ahab has swallowed the Ishmael-ian; Ishmael, too, has entered a metaphorical belly of the beast. Melville’s Ahab identity has eclipsed the Ishmael half. However, when the rumbling sea resettles back to its natural calm as it “rolled five thousand years ago,” Ishmael emerges from the water, clinging to the coffin of Queequeg – a symbol of the dead Ahab-side of Melville and man.
What is to be made of the story of two men searching for the inevitably unattainable and what is Melville’s ultimate message? It is too simple to settle that Ahab and Ishmael are two separate men on the same journey, both invested in each other as a means to reach their ultimate goals, and it is also easy to assume that the captain and the deckhand both recklessly challenge the natural world and both emerge in their own failures. However, the characteristics of both Ishmael and Ahab appear to be mirror images of the two sides of Herman Melville; his abilities and his perceived limitations. Melville had completed his seafaring years and found considerable success on the seas as both a writer and a vessel to experience life and the world. This is Ishmael-ian Melville: the man who he, at the time of his creation of Moby Dick, had found success writing fool-proof and predictably successful fictional travel logs masked as first hand accounts. And yet there is the other side of Melville, the Melville who wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, decrying the very books which made him a wealthy man, yearning to be something bigger than he was. This is the Melville which sought to prove to the world his equal status to that of the gods of literature: Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau. The tormented soul of Melville is Ahab. At the end of his tale, the Ahab-ian Melville falls to his vices and succumbs to the womb of the human soul: the sea.
What is left is the Ishmael-ian Melville, bobbing on top of the soul of man, clutching to the life-buoy-coffin of his other half. Ahab, the lost soul of Herman Melville, is redeemed when Ishmael steps onto the deck of The Rachel.
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Myers, Henry Alonzo. “Captain Ahab’s Discovery: The Tragic Meaning of Moby Dick.” The New England Quarterly 15.1 (March 1942): pp 15-34.
Patell, Cyrus R. K.. Foreword. Moby Dick, or the Whale. By Herman Melville: Washington Square Press, 1999. xi-xxviii.
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