Hero or Villain? Constructing Captain Ahab's Identity

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of content

1. Introduction

II Hero or Villain? - Constructing Captain Ahab’s Identity
1. Characterising Ahab
1.1 Free will versus Fate
1.2 Madness
1.3 Obsession & Revenge
2. Ahab compared to other leaders 2.1 King Ahab of Israel
2.2 Milton’s Satan
2.3 The Shakespearean Hero

III Conclusion

IV. Bibliography p.

I. Introduction

In 1851 Herman Melville published his novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale1 which is considered an outstanding work of Romanticism and the American Renaissance. Although it was a commercial failure at first, its reputation as a Great American Novel grew during the twentieth century. Other authors admit they wished they had written it themselves2 and praise the novel as “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world [and] the greatest book of the sea ever written.”3

What makes the novel especially interesting is the protagonist, Captain Ahab, who is on a monomaniacal quest for revenge on the white whale Moby Dick that took his leg on a previous voyage. The scholars’ opinions about Ahab range from being a villain to being a hero, whereby some scholars might feel ambiguous and hesitant to put Ahab in either one of the categories. 4 Indeed, it is almost impossible to call Ahab a hero in the strict sense of the word, which is “a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”5 It comes more natural to see Ahab as a villain that is “a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.”6 However that’s not all there is to the captain of the Pequod: The complexity of Ahab’s character makes it hard to categorize him in either good or bad because he really displays qualities of both.

This paper’s aim is to look behind Captain Ahab’s façade in order to find out how Melville constructed his protagonist and why he constructed him the way he did. First of all it is important to look at some key features that occur in Ahab’s character, namely the battle between free will and fate, madness and obsession with revenge. The second part of this paper takes a closer look at possible influences on the construction of Captain Ahab by comparing Ahab to other leaders: In a comparison to King Ahab of Israel the topic of religion in Moby Dick will be mentioned, a comparison to Milton’s Satan will deal with Ahab’s satanic features and the last comparison will connect Ahab to the tragic hero of Shakespeare. Finally the main findings will be summarized in a conclusion.

II. Hero or Villain? - Constructing Captain Ahab’s Identity

1. Characterising Ahab

An analysis of Ahab’s character is very difficult because he has such a complex personality. However there are certain aspects of Ahab’s character that are notable throughout Moby Dick. This chapter deals with features that define Ahab in one way or another without raising claim to completeness.

1.1 Free will versus fate

Ahab doesn’t really understand what’s driving him in his actions. He is drawn between his belief in his own free will on one hand and the concept of fate on the other hand. Does he act upon his own desires or is he a slave to a higher power, for example destiny or God? Ahab doesn’t know an answer to this question so he seems scared that he might not be responsible for his own actions. He wonders:

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? […] By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.”7

Of course Ahab is frightened that he might not be the master of his decisions and actions. If there really is no such thing as a free will, everything happens according to a plan that has been made by a higher power and that Ahab cannot influence. For Ahab a complete reliance on Fate goes hand in hand with the assertion that

“Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”8

In this scene Ahab clearly states that he has no control over his own behaviour. One could argue that he is using the concept of fate as an excuse for his actions but it might just as well be possible that Ahab really believes that “the path to [his] fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon [his] soul is grooved to run.”9

If Ahab’s path, as well as that of all other human beings, has already been laid out one might ask, why God gave them reason as a guide to be followed in all their actions. No matter what kind of craziness can be seen in Ahab he still has a high intellect and is able to make reasonable decisions. However his reason is being influenced by his emotions. Melville created Ahab as a person “whose faculties of reason were enslaved by passions, whose monomanias lorded it over their powers of reasonable choice.”10 Ahab has been given reason to start with, but his personal flaws prevent him from constantly using it. That’s why “[Ahab’s] great natural intellect […] that before living agent, now became the living instrument.”11 Taking all that into account it’s not surprising that Ahab shows various signs of madness.

1.2 Madness

One possible reason for Ahab’s madness is that he projects onto Moby Dick everything that’s enraged any human being ever, since time began:

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.”12

Moby Dick hereby becomes a symbol for all evil in the world and for Ahab killing this leviathan means vanquishing evil in the world. It becomes obvious that the White Whale seems more evil to Ahab than it really is because he exaggerates the evil in what he hates. He undervalues Moby Dick’s strength and thereby persuades himself to attack the unconquerable without having a real chance. This shows how delusional Ahab is when it comes to Moby Dick. However Ahab’s madness reaches a limit in his ability to do his own psychoanalysis:

“What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad - Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! ”13

Ahab clearly knows that people think he’s mad, and he doesn’t deny that he is. The question is: How mad can he really be if he can still manage to reflect on his own madness? Apparently sanity and insanity go hand in hand in Ahab’s case, so it is possible for him to function highly, especially as captain of the Pequod, while being completely mad at the same time. Also it must be noted that Ahab’s insanity does not completely transform him into another person. It rather adds to his sanity making him a more complex character who can be sane and insane at the same time and thus appears more powerful. This becomes visible when

“his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentrated cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.”14

This shows that Ahab somehow manages to draw something positive from his madness. In addition to the positive effects of his madness Ahab thinks that he is actually able to snap out of his madness if he wanted to. He even suggests that more people should go mad:

“In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How canst thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st go mad?”15

Here Ahab presents his madness as a choice claiming that he willingly is mad because it is easier to endure things when you’re mad. It is questionable if Ahab really believes his own words or if he is just desperate in his situation and tries to make himself feel better by seeing madness as something positive.

In general madness is not perceived as positive and in Moby Dick it is presented as having a single-minded obsession over one thing or being completely possessed by one overpowering desire, for example revenge.

1.3 Obsession & Revenge

Ahab is described as a monomaniac which means he is not simply crazy but crazy with an intense focus on a single thing: He makes revenge on Moby Dick his ultimate goal and the end in itself. He is also powerful enough to transfer his focus to the crew, so that everyone on board the Pequod more or less willingly supports their Captain in his wild quest for revenge.

How obsessed Ahab truly is becomes clear when he says: “Aye, aye! And I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.”16 It shows that he is willing to go, not just to the ends of the earth but also to hell itself to fulfil his need of taking revenge.

Ahab claims that the entire world has an allegorical or neo-platonic aspect, in other words all things represent other things and everything happens for a purpose. Moby Dick has already been mentioned as a symbol of evil and according to Ahab

“all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event - in the living act, the undoubted deed - there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. […] I see in [the whale] 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.”17

Here Ahab admits that it’s his own hatred, and not just the sake of all humankind, that motivates him to pursue Moby Dick. Since everything happens for a reason Ahab believes he doesn’t have a choice but to take revenge on Moby Dick for biting off his leg. Interestingly Captain Boomer, the “English captain”, has a different point of view and therefore acts as a crucial foil to Captain Ahab. Although Moby Dick took Boomer’s arm, he refuses to hunt and kill him and states:

“[Moby Dick] is welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but hark ye, he’s best let alone; Don’t you think so, Captain?”18

Of course Ahab doesn’t think so and is determined to kill Moby Dick. The whale hurt his pride and made him feel like less a man with only one leg. It’s not hard to tell that Ahab is a very proud man because Melville comments that “in his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride”19 Even Ahab himself acknowledges his own hubris when he admits: “Here I am, proud as a Greek god.”20 It is clear that pride plays an important role in the characterization of Captain Ahab: It triggers his obsession for revenge and it can even be considered as the tragic flaw that leads to his downfall.

Ahab shares this pride with another famous literary character that will be discussed in chapter 2.2. It is worth comparing Captain Ahab to other leading figures in history and literature in order to gain a better understanding of his character.


1 Herman Melville (1851). Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. Reprint: Penguin Group, New York, 1992. Hereafter referred to as MB.

2 C.f. William Faulkner (1927). Originally in the Chicago Tribune, 16 July 1927. Reprinted in Parker & Hayford (2001), p. 640.

3 D.H. Lawrence (1923). Studies in Classic American Literature. Reprinted London: Penguin Books, p. 168.

4 C.f. for example Henry F. Pommer (1970). Milton and Melville. University of Pittsburgh Press.

5 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/hero, seen 04/06/2015.

6 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/villain, seen 04/06/2015.

7 MB, p. 592.

8 MB, p. 611.

9 MB, p. 183.

10 Pommer, 1970, p. 84.

11 MB, p. 201.

12 MB, p. 200.

13 MB, p. 183.

14 MB, p. 201.

15 MB, p. 530.

16 MB, p. 177.

17 MB, p. 178.

18 MB, p. 482.

19 MB, p. 564.

20 MB, p. 514.

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Hero or Villain? Constructing Captain Ahab's Identity
University of Stuttgart
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Kathrin Vogler (Author), 2015, Hero or Villain? Constructing Captain Ahab's Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/366477


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