Moby Dick: Ahab’s Struggle For Revenge Essay, Research Paper
Ahab’s Struggle for Revenge
Many writers over time have attempted to do the exact same thing. They have tried to create a story about one character’s journey, an explanation of the events leading up to that journey, and the results of it. Throw in a little symbolism, and you have a format that has been used and reused over the years. This type of plot can be seen in such classics as The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and The Odyssey. Besides these popular stories, there are inevitably failures that use this same storyline. To the contrary, there is probably a story that is seen as the culmination of this genre. This story is Moby Dick. Not only does it have a meaningful and symbolic plot; it also appeals to an interest in the sea held by many and is seen as one of the greatest literary works of all time. In Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Ahab wants revenge against the whale, he struggles to get this revenge, and he fails. This struggle, as well as the one in The Odyssey, may be more of a quest than a journey, but what happens along the way to the goal is no different from the events in a typical journey.
Ahab has a great desire and many reasons to get revenge against Moby Dick. The most obvious and physical is the loss of his leg. This loss is also what caused Ahab to begin his struggle against the whale. All of the other reasons for the struggle began to develop in Ahab’s mind after he lost his leg. This is not to say the entire chase happened just because Ahab lost his leg, as such a loss would not cause the typical person to travel so long and so resolutely for the sake of revenge. The injury is not merely a spark either- it is somewhere in between a spark and the sole cause. Captain Ahab sees the injury not just for what it is, but also as a symbol of all the evil man has ever encountered. The injury and its effects on Captain Ahab are summed up by Peleg, “I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody– desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off”(Melville, 60).
Another reason for Ahab’s hate of the whale is that he sees Moby Dick as the source of all evil. He thinks Moby Dick is more than just a whale. He indicates this during a famous speech to the crew members, “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see him in outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him”(120). Ahab also says that Moby Dick’s appearance as a whale is just a mask; he and the crew must try to go beyond that innocent mask to battle Moby Dick.
Ahab thinks he is equal to God. He believes he is fit to fight nature and the universe himself even though he is only human. He displays this arrogance while giving a speech to the crew about why he wants revenge on the whale, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me”(120). To Ahab, battling Moby Dick will be almost equal to fighting the sun, yet he still presses on. An ordinary man cannot do such a task. Ahab is showing that he thinks himself to be an equal of God. He is frequently referred to as god-like. For example, Peleg calls him, “A grand, ungodly, god-like man”(59). He is god-like because of the forces he is struggling against, and ungodly because he refuses to worship anything other than his own will. Ahab himself says he is “proud as a Greek god”(347), but he is annoyed that he still must rely on the dumb and lowly carpenter the enable him to stand. Later, Ahab destroys a quadrant and curses everything that makes man turn his eyes to heaven. This shows how little he cares for God, and how much he thinks of himself of God’s equal. He probably feels that he is too great to have to be made to turn his eyes to heaven. Ahab again shows his pride by baptizing a harpoon in the name of the devil, not in the name of the father. He is trying to make himself into his own god, just as the Devil did when he rebelled against God.
The struggle for revenge is a very long one, as evidenced by the fact that the whaleboat goes halfway around the world to search for Moby-Dick. A long trip from port is not unusual for a whaling ship; however, a long trip in disregard of good whaling waters to search for one single whale is somewhat peculiar. The location of Moby Dick just happened to coincide with the possible destination of a typical whaling ship. If the whale was under the North Pole, for example, Ahab still would have gone after it. He illustrates his resolve to find the whale in this quote, “Aye, Aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and rounds perdition’s flames before I give him up”(119).
Despite all of the omens and pleas that are directed towards Ahab, he continues to search for the whale. There are many examples of events that Ahab should have taken notice of and stopped the chase. He learns from two different ships that each one has had a crew member killed by Moby Dick; the captains of both ships recommend that Ahab stay away from the whale. Pip, although seemingly mad, has some measure of wisdom and gives Ahab a warning, “Ha, ha! old Ahab! the White Whale; he’ll nail ye!”(321). Other warnings come from the ruin of several navigational aids. It starts when the quadrant won’t give Ahab the position of the whale and he destroys it. Then the compass malfunctions, showing a course that would take the Pequod away from its chosen path and the whale. Ahab is reduced to using the most primitive method of navigation, the log and line, but even that breaks. These failures are warnings to Ahab– ones that he refuses to follow.
In the quest for Moby Dick, Ahab gives up nearly all pleasures and even uses “gams” to search for the whale. He throws his pipe into the ocean because it no longer gives him pleasure. He says, “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapours among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more—-”(94). Ahab’s madness in searching for Moby Dick has forced him to abandon even the things that used to give him so much pleasure. Another pleasure that Ahab abandons is the “gam”, which is a friendly meeting between two whaling ships. Instead of spending these meetings having a good time, Ahab only seeks information on Moby Dick. If the other ship cannot give him such information, he sails away.
Ahab doesn’t care about business or profit; he just wants to find Moby Dick. The first conflict between business and Ahab’s search for the whale happens when Ahab is outlining his plans to the crew. Starbuck challenges Ahab, “I am game for the crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance”(120). Starbuck’s advice is ignored then as well as later. Later, Starbuck is trying to extract from a whale a valuable material used to make perfume; this substance would bring in a large profit. But Captain Ahab cuts the process short; he says the chase must go on. When casks of valuable oil begin to leak and need to be repaired, Ahab initially ignores them because they would take time from the chase. He eventually agrees to get them fixed, but not for business reasons. Another important incident where Ahab displays his unconcern for the commercial success of the voyage is when he smashes the quadrant. This device is essential for navigation and its absence lowers profits significantly. Not only does this show that he doesn’t care for profit; it also shows his apathy for the survival of the crew.
Ahab will do anything to get the crew to help him out in the struggle and keep them convinced that he is right about going on the chase. Not only does Ahab have to convince the crew to help him chase the whale with no regard for profits; he also has to convince them of the validity of his struggle. The liquor he supplies and possibly the gold doubloon nailed to the mainmast are sufficient motivation for the former. Starbuck brings up the latter in a sensible confrontation of Captain Ahab, “Vengeance on a dumb brute, that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous”(120). This is a good point, but Captain plays down its importance by claiming that the whale is more evil and significant than Starbuck realizes. Starbuck isn’t really convinced, but the rest of the crew is and Starbuck is swayed to their side.
The result of the long search for Moby Dick is failure- Ahab is killed and the whale survives. The first step of this failure is when Moby Dick smashes Ahab’s boat. After Moby Dick was spotted, whaleboats were sent out; one of which was Ahab’s. When they approached the great whale it seemed gentle, but this turns out to be misleading. It resurfaces under Ahab’s boat, bites through it, and shakes it around until it breaks, “In this attitude the White Whale now shook the slight cedar as a mildly cruel cat her mouse”(400). Ahab fights bravely to save the doomed vessel, but fails. The jaws of the whale come within six inches of Ahab’s head. Ahab is already past the point of no return– nothing the whale can do will scare him away, even though it should. What happens to Ahab’s boat is an indication of what will happen to the Pequod later on.
Another omen that signaled the quick and inevitable failure of the chase was Fedallah’s death. A long time before, Fedallah had set forth the conditions that would have to be present for Ahab to die. Fedallah would die before Ahab, Ahab would see two different types of hearses on the water, and Ahab would be killed by hemp. The chances of this prophecy being fulfilled seemed so small that Ahab felt reassured that he would succeed in the chase. Fedallah’s disappearance makes Ahab a bit uneasy, but he ignores his feelings. Two days later, Fedallah’s body is seen lashed to the whale, “Lashed round and round to the fish’s back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned upon old Ahab”(415). Ahab is caught off guard by this sight. The prophecy is almost fulfilled– Fedallah is dead, and the whale is one of the hearses that Fedallah had described. What once seemed very unlikely is almost certain to happen once Fedallah’s body is seen.
The sinking of the Pequod showed that there was no turning back- Ahab would either have to kill the whale or be killed. The whale was in the middle of fighting with Ahab when it decided to come toward the ship. The crew members wonder different things– Starbuck asks why his piety has brought him to this cruel end, while Stubb hopes he will be remembered as jolly. Then Moby Dick hits the ship, “Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal men could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled”(418). Ahab is denied the last pride of a shipwrecked captain– that of going down with his ship. He then realizes that the Pequod is the second hearse that Fedallah had prophesied. There is only one thing left to happen in the prediction– Ahab’s death by hemp. Either Ahab must die, or he will kill Moby Dick.
The final outcome of the quest occurs when Ahab is strangled by the harpoon line. Fedallah had foreseen that Ahab would be killed by hemp, and he was right. Ahab tried to throw the harpoon one last time at the whale in the vain hope that it would be killed. Here is where Ahab dies, “Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone” (419). Ahab’s failure had been predicted time and time again; there was nothing he could do to stop it. Some readers may have been hoping that Ahab would kill the whale with his last harpoon throw, but it was just too late for a change in the momentum that had been building against Ahab from the start of the book.
Ahab wants revenge; he struggles to get it, and fails. That seemingly simple storyline is at the core of a book which is regarded as possibly the best work of American literature ever written. Every reader can relate to this book because they are each going on their own personal “voyage” every day of their lives. All of the depth and meaning that is Moby Dick may never be understood, but it is assured that the interesting plot alone will make this novel a classic for many years to come.