Melville's Captain Ahab as a Literary Antitype

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

22 Pages, Grade: A



1. Introduction

2. Melville’s Captain Ahab as a Literary Antitype
2.1. The Concept of Ahab as an “Antitype”
2.2. Captain Ahab as an Antitype

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction: The Bible as a Source

Of all sources for Moby-Dick, the Bible, as an inescapable part of his education, was Melville’s best and earliest known one. Herman Melville was raised in a pious middle class perception of religion, and broadened his horizon of knowledge about Scripture and its reception throughout the centuries through the study of biblical commentaries, metaphysical essays, sermons, religious poetry, and of course of the “opposition”: stoic, skeptical, and deist literature. No other major writer of Melville’s times makes such extensive use of Scripture. Not even Emerson, with an actual career as an Unitarian minister, or Hawthorne, who grew up in a Salem Calvinist family, make a comparable effort to use the Bible as a source, or to imply comparable grave consequences for the world view of both reader and author in their use of it.

Raised with the Bible, Melville’s biblical allusions appear with such regularity that their use seems “not studied but involuntarily.”[1] The spontaneity of their occurrence points to the fact that Melville had internalized the contents and styles of Scripture to an extent that made him employ biblical imagery, characters, and themes as if they had sprung from his own mind. There are about 250 obvious allusions to biblical passages in Moby-Dick[2], and an almost indefinite number of thematic and stylistic borrowings. Throughout Melville’s career as an author, the number of allusions to biblical writings continually rises, from only a dozen in his first novel, Typee, to more than 550 in Clarel, the latter being the only work with more references to Scripture than Moby-Dick.

In Nathalia Wright’s list of the biblical books which Herman Melville marked and commented upon, the books of Ecclesiastes and Job have most markings, right after the Psalms, Matthew, and Isaiah, which suggests “close connections […] between the Bibles he read and the books Melville wrote.”[3] Of the passages thoroughly marked the wisdom sentiments in Job, especially the dialogue between Yahweh and Job in Job, ch. 38ff, as well as the short book of Jonah, are most notable for their recurrence as important features of Melville’s novels.

In the course of his study of the Bible, Melville must have taken notice of the literary and religious revaluation of the Bible that was typical for his time. He was aware of the fact that, from the middle of the nineteenth century on, the social and natural sciences, even Bible criticism itself, were taking increasingly secular approaches to the Scripture. In this context, Moby-Dick must be evaluated as an indispensable piece of evidence for Melville’s reaction to, or maybe even participation in a new way of confronting biblical lore. His acquaintance with the Bible, which led him from intensive research to personal immersion, shows that Melville – despite his temporary emotional involvement[4] – read it like other books, searching for its significance for himself personally. He concluded that the significance he found lay in its offering a long “allegorical representation of metaphysical truth”[5] – the Bible as an instrument of access to a truth, but not the truth itself. In his novel The Confidence-Man, Melville compares religion with literature, or, more exactly, with fiction, showing his attitude of growing detachment towards religion: “It is with fiction as it is with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.”[6] For Melville the Bible was “a currency” no less dependent on the perception and ideals of the individual reader “than the Ecuadorian doubloon nailed to the Pequod’s mainmast.”[7]

Melville’s use of the Bible was not systematic – and how should it be, given that he was brought up with and by this book in such a manner that he could refer to it intuitively – and in its criticality very single-minded. This single-mindedness, which took various shapes, is to be the topic of this essay, which will point out the biblical images and characters that came together in the creation of the hero of Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab, and which will analyze Ahab as a literary figure composed of certain biblical types into an antitypical character.

2. Melville’s Captain Ahab as a Literary Antitype

2.1. The Concept of Ahab as an “Antitype”

In the creation of his Ahab, Melville uses a variety of motives, characters, and types from biblical books, most notably from 1 Kings, Jonah and Job, which he realigns and combines in order to provide the reader with his perspectives on them. The character of Ahab is Melville’s most striking creation, unifying character traits of the biblical King Ahab, of Jonah and of Job, but nevertheless surpassing them all in his personal quest for the unreachable.

However, choosing biblical parallels and making them more than obvious through various allusions and amplifying images all throughout the novel, Melville does not intend to provide in Ahab a contrasting character to the biblical characters. Captain Ahab does not, as widely perceived[8], exist as a counter-image of Jonah and Job, nor can his actions be interpreted as fundamentally wrong, or as opposed to the “right” behavior of the biblical characters. Ahab as based on Jonah and Job does not point to “pride and arrogance,”[9] but to worship and defiance, and much more. Melville’s Ahab is no less than equal to his biblical counter-images Jonah and Job in his “search for an Absolute,”[10] and he is no worse than his namesake, King Ahab, in his choice of defiance as his form of worship.

The method of Ahab’s creation by Melville – assuming that we can speak of a method, even though taking into account the spontaneity of his use of biblical images – follows a pattern of scriptural interpretation called typology. Developed by the Church Fathers and widely used in the middle ages, typological interpretation tried to connect two biblical characters or events in a way that illuminated their super-historical or -literal relationship, assuming that the earlier occurrence (type) prefigures the later occurrence (antitype) in a yet imperfect way. Famous type-antitype constellations were the crossing of the Red Sea as a type for the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan, the Mosaic covenant as a type for the New Testament covenant, or the prefiguration of the twelve Apostles in the twelve tribes of Israel.

At first applied to biblical characters alone, typological interpretation soon found its way into literature. Two of its most prominent instances can be found in Wolfram of Eschenbach’s courtly epic Willehalm (Guillaume) and its French predecessor, the Chanson de Roland, which both endow their literary interpretation of historical figures – Willehalm, resp. Charlemagne – with prominently supernatural, even Messianic features, openly pre­senting them as antitypes to the glorious military leaders of the Old Testament books Joshua and Judges, or even to Christ. Interwoven with the concept that the Bible can be read as an accumulation of Old Testament types prefiguring New Testament antitypes was the notion that the Bible, as an historical document, also contained clues as to the interpretation of non-biblical figures.

Applied to the theology and philosophy of history, typology formed the basis for the concept of the translatio imperii,[11] which thought that culture and civilization followed the course of the sun. Every empire that currently had the privilege to count as the peak of historical development was considered to be a step closer to the “Christian expectation of an impending eschaton,”[12] the hope for a fulfillment of God’s historical plan in the last judgment and redemption. However, “the promises of joy and triumph in which Scripture is steeped cannot be separated form [a] sense of suffering.”[13] The progress of God’s Heilsplan had to be paid for dearly, and its rules had to be accepted whatever may come. Without doubt, typological thinking remains deeply rooted in the modern mind. The notion of America as a New Canaan is an adaptation of this concept, and it is not surprising that other examples of typological thinking can easily be found all throughout American culture, be they historical or literary.[14]

Melville’s Moby-Dick makes use of the concept of typology, with which Melville must have been acquainted, given that the information we have on his study of Scripture is correct. The figure of Ahab can be interpreted as a literary antitype to several biblical types, which goes far beyond the usual claim that Ahab is merely “based on,” or “inspired by” biblical characters. Melville’s Ahab unites features of several biblical types, and exhibits traits of an antitype insofar as he surpasses his types.

Captain Ahab has been prefigured in Jonah and Job, but, as an antitype relates to its type(s), he has to exceed them by adding a surplus of meaning: Unlike Job and Jonah, he defies God, unwilling to give in to the unavoidable; he states his human will against the over­whelming divine, where Job humbly “despise[s himself], and repent[s] in dust and ashes.”[15] Unlike King Ahab, who defies God in neglecting worship, Captain Ahab combines defiance with worship into what he calls “thy right worship” by defiance.[16]

Given the puzzling multiplicity of possible interpretations of Melville’s Ahab, it must be assumed that Ahab to a certain extent does not possess “objectivity in [his] character,”[17] but exists as an amplified figure in as many regards as the reader is willing to acknowledge. On the outside, he is a “type” in the non-exegetical, but literary sense: he embodies the most general features of the groups he is to represent, such as the whaling captain, the avenger, the madman, or the lost soul. Just as Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate, is a typical figure representing the caste of pious, hardworking Nantucket Quakers, Ahab must be regarded as a literary type representing certain groups. However, since Ahab is created particularly in response to biblical material, an additional analysis of the intrinsic typicality that transcends the literary one is indispensable. One might feel tempted to state that Captain Ahab possesses, in fact, a twofold typicality: On the one hand, there is Ahab’s literary typicality (extrinsic) which cannot be assessed without knowledge of the social realm from which Melville has him emerge – the figure of Ahab as a member of the Nantucket whaling community, haunted by a traumatic past – and which provides the character with the features of a typical representative of this society. On the other hand, there is Ahab as an antitype to biblical types (intrinsic), who has to be analyzed without regard to his extrinsic literary typicality, and who derives distinctive features from his biblical types alone.[18] In this context of a twofold typicality I find it justified to describe Ahab as an antitype. This description allows the depiction of the biblical characters Ahab, Jonah, and Job not only as inspirations for the creation of Captain Ahab, but as types. Furthermore, this description leaves intact the traditional approach that perceives Ahab as a type in the literary sense.


[1] Nathalia Wright: Melville’s Use of the Bible. New York, 1969. p. 8.

[2] The Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick identifies about half of these 250 allusions in footnotes and the introduction. Other allusions are marked as such in the text itself, and contain either paraphrases of biblical passages, or are direct quotations from the Scripture, accompanied by careful citation of the source. (Herman Melville: Moby-Dick. Edited by Hershel Parker, Harrison Hayford. Norton Critical Edition, New York/London, 2001)

[3] Wright, p. 10.

[4] Wright mentions several examples of Melville’s dialogue with the Bible, amongst the most striking his very intimate, yet self-assured reply to the question of faith: “In reply to Paul’s exhortation, ‘Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God,’ he noted, ‘The only kind of Faith – one’s own.’” (Wright, p. 15f)

[5] Howard P. Vincent: The Trying-Out of “Moby-Dick”. Boston, 1949. p. 33.

[6] Herman Melville: The Confidence-Man. Edited and with an introduction by Stephen Matterson. Penguin Edition, London/New York, 1990. p. 218.

[7] Kris Lackey: “The Holy Guide-Book and the Sword of the Lord: How Melville Used the Bible in Redburn and White-Jacket.” Studies in the Novel. 1982. p. 241-254: p. 241.

[8] Vincent, p. 71f.

[9] Vincent, p. 72

[10] Vincent, p. 75.

[11] Otto I., Bishop of Freising: Chronica Sive Historia de Duabus Civitatibus, about 1140-5: A divinely ordained plan necessitates the perpetual alteration between good and evil empires as well as the translatio imperii as foundations of history. Otto’s tract on universal history is only the first in a long line that implies that the center of power must be translated westwards. (Otto I, Bishop of Freising: Chronica Sive Historia de Duabus Civitatibus. The Two Cities; A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 A.D. Edited by Austin P. Evans and Charles Knapp. Translation and Introduction by Charles C. Mierow. Octagon Books, New York, 1966.)

[12] Löwith, Karl: Meaning in History. Chicago, 1949. p. 205.

[13] Löwith, p. 204.

[14] Sacvan Bercovitch illustrates the “Typology of America’s Mission” in his book The American Jeremiad. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1978.. Driven by the belief that the peak of national greatness must now emerge as far in the West as possible – in America – the new England Puritans developed “a mythic view of history” not unlike that of the Church Fathers, with whom they also shared the firm belief in “an apocalypse which stood ‘near, even at the door,’ requiring one last great act.” (The American Jeremiad, p. 94) Bercovitch also points to an oration on America’s destiny in White-Jacket: “Thus in many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of nations must, of right, belong to ourselves. […] And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; […] God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race, and great things we feel in our souls.” (Herman Melville: White-Jacket. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, 1990. p. 153.)

[15] Job, 42:6

[16] Ch. 119, p. 382.

[17] Wright, p. 46.

[18] Nathalia Wright, p. 46, takes a similar approach to the interpretation of some of Melville’s characters, including Ahab, which distinguishes between “interior existence” and “outward appearance,” although a discussion about the applicability of a typological interpretation in the exegetical sense is not brought up. Wright calls the characters’ outward appearances “types,” which embody the most general states of the Quaker mind, and for some of which “the Bible provided prototypes,” but does not take the final step towards an re-interpretation of the characters as antitypes.

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Melville's Captain Ahab as a Literary Antitype
University of Massachusetts - Amherst  (English Department)
English 731: Bible - Myth, Society, Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
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Melville, Moby Dick, Ahab, Typologie, Bibel, Literaturtheorie, bible, literature theory
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Silja Rübsamen (Author), 2002, Melville's Captain Ahab as a Literary Antitype, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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