Ahab’s Evil Quest:Melville’s Symbols in Moby-DickHerman Melville began working on his epic novel Moby-Dick in 1850, writing itprimarily as a report on the whaling voyages he undertook in the 1830s and early 1840s. Many critics suppose that his initial book did not contain characters such as Ahab,Starbuck, or even Moby Dick, but the summer of 1850 changed Melville’s writing andhis masterpiece. He became friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne and was greatlyinfluenced by him. He also read Shakespeare and Milton’s Paradise Lost (Murray 41).
These influences lead to the novel Melville completed and published in 1851. Althoughshunned by critics after its release, Moby-Dick enjoyed a critical renaissance in the 1920sand as assumed its rightful place in the canons of American and world literature as agreat classic. Through the symbols employed by Melville, Moby-Dick studies man’srelationship with his universe, his fate, and his God. Ahab represents the league humansmake with evil when they question the fate God has willed upon them, and God isrepresented by the great white whale, Moby Dick. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville usesa vast array of symbols and allegories in the search for the true explanation of man’splace in the universe and his relationship with his fate and his God.Order now
The focus of cruel fate and evil symbols is placed on the head of Ahab, captain ofthe Pequod. Ishmael, though narrator of the story, is not the center of Moby-Dick afterCaptain Ahab is introduced onto the deck of the ship and into action. The focus of thenovel shifts from the freshman whaler to experienced Ahab, an “ungodly, god-like man”(Melville 82). Having been a whaler for many years, he is a well respected captain, yethis previous voyage has left him without a limb, and in its place is a peg leg carved fromwhale ivory. Ahab remains below decks shadowed in obscurity for the initial stages ofthe Pequod’s journey into the Atlantic. Ahab soon reveals his devilish plan to his crew,however, in a frenzied attack of oratory he wishes to seek, hunt, and destroy the WhiteWhale, the fabled Moby Dick.
It was the white whale Moby Dick which had, on Ahab’sprior voyage, ravenously devoured his leg, and Ahab harbored a resentful revenge on hispersecutor. Any mention of Moby Dick sent Ahab into a furious rage (Melville 155). Heriles against Starbuck, the first mate and Starbuck replies, “vengeance on a dumb brute! . .
. to be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous” (Melville 155). It is through Ahab’s speech and his subsequent dialogue with Starbuck that asecond major symbol is introduced into the story, Moby Dick. Blasphemy is irreverencetoward God or something sacred, not irreverence toward a dumb brutish whale. YetStarbuck accuses Ahab of blasphemy.
Melville places this rather harsh accusatory wordin the mouth of the Christian-minded Starbuck, directed at a devilishly revengeful Ahab. The only way actions taken against Moby Dick could be blasphemous is if he is sacred. Through indirect descriptions of Moby Dick and direct rantings of an insane man,Melville peppers Moby-Dick with hints and clues at the true essence Ahab sees behindthe symbol of Moby Dick. According to sailors stories and legends, Moby Dick is seen in two places at onceat different places around the globe. In this trait Melville is suggesting omnipresence, agodlike trait (Melville 172). The sailors think he is immortal, another godlike trait,because he has been harpooned many times and still lives (Braswell 152).
Ahab himselfbelieves Moby Dick’s power is outrageous, like God’s omnipotence. Ahab states inChapter XXXVI, “that inscrutable thing Moby Dick’s power is chiefly what I hate”(Melville157). In addition to the godlike characteristics of omnipotence andomnipresence, Moby Dick has garnered a reputation for tearing through sinners. Heshows godlike justice and mercy in saving Steelkilt and killing the unjust Radney, as thecrew learns from the sailors of the Town-Ho (Auden 11).
Melville uses many other symbols to make the white whale a symbol of divinepower (Braswell 151). His awful austere beauty is godlike, as is his titanic power and hispyramidical white hump. His color, white, has signified a special sanctity; and Melvilledevotes an entire chapter, narrated by Ishmael, in which he explores the meaning ofwhiteness through the ages and through the eyes of many different cultures (Arvin221-222). In Chapter LI, the Pequod sights a mysterious silvery jet of water obviouslyemanating from a whale. The sails are spread and the ship gives chase, but the”spirit-spout” is never identified.
If this spirit-spout is emanating from Moby Dick, it isreminiscent of God’s pillar of fire in Exodus. Through these and other small clues andsymbols, Melville insinuates that Moby Dick is sacred and godlike. What Melville slyly intimates with symbol he states explicitly through the mouthof an insane Shaker. When the Pequod meets the ship Jeroboam, the command of theship is virtually in the hands of an insane Shaker who thinks he is the archangel Gabriel. Shakers were a religious sect that believed that humanity’s sin was caused by Adam andEve’s first act of carnal sin (Guiley 137).
Gabriel’s rantings reveal his beliefs that MobyDick is God incarnate (Auden 11) and predicts doom for those who hunt “his divinity”(Melville 295). Those who seek to destroy Moby Dick are destroyed by him. HarryMacey, second mate of the Jeroboam, who pursued Moby Dick is killed. Like insaneGabriel, few critics doubt that Moby Dick is a symbol for God (Buell 62). However,Moby Dick is seen as unjust and too-powerful by Ahab, suggestive of an Old Testamentconception of God. Rather that being a loving Deity, Moby Dick embodies “the OldTestament Calvinistic conception of an affrighting Deity and his strict commandments”(Murray 42).
T. Walker Herbert states that Moby Dick represents a God run amok(112-114). Ahab’s feelings toward a God he feels has unjustly wronged him is hisinciting force to chase Moby Dick around the world. What Captain Ahab is seeking, by way of symbols and allegories, is the grandmystery of the universe. Ahab wishes to search heaven for the secret of human woe andsuffering (Hillway 89) and wrest the secrets away (Spiller 455).
Ahab believes God ispunishing him unjustly, and Ahab’s mad quest is to avenge this private insult (Murray46). Melville uses allusions to the Bible to emphasize this classic struggle between manand God. Ishmael says that Ahab is chasing a “Job’s whale round the world” (Melville177). In the Old Testament, Job claims that God has unjustly wronged him, similar toAhab’s belief. By comparing Job and Ahab, Melville forces “readers to consider God’scharacter, especially as it relates to human suffering” (House 213). Ahab conveys all ofhumanity’s protests against the injustices of fate, Melville makes Ahab the symbol ofhumanity and Moby Dick a symbol of God, conferrer of Fate.
“When Ahab strikes atMoby Dick . . . he does so in a mad desire for revenge on God, whom he holdsresponsible for its evil’s existence” (Braswell 150). Ahab refuses to accept the fact thatlimitations on humans prohibit them from attacking God, yet Ahab tries.
“Acontemporary French critic got a the heart of the matter when he said that the only reasonAhab tries to harpoon Moby Dick is that he cannot harpoon God” (Braswell 151). Ahab’s blasphemous hunt of Moby Dick has made him a sinner against God. Bystriking back at fate Ahab has become the mirror image of his Old Testament namesake,evil king Ahab of Israel (Kazin 44). Ahab desires to look through the “pasteboard mask”of reality and see what is behind physical objects (Melville 157). Ahab wants to lookbehind the mask of Moby Dick and see God, to challenge him and question his justness. Ahab believes God is oblivious to the suffering of mankind (Braswell 154) and evenstates, “Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond” the mask of Moby Dick (Melville157).
Not only has Ahab questioned God’s justice, he has questioned His very existence. This blasphemy against God and non-acceptance of human limitations has made Ahabseek evil forces to harpoon God, God in the guise of Moby Dick. Ahab’s association with the evil forces in the universe is made apparent byMelville many times in Moby-Dick. Ahab declares himself to be mad and “demoniac”(Melville 160). His evil properties would lead him to be called the Antichrist by theChurch Fathers (Murray 40). Ahab sets sail on Christmas Day, leaving port whenChrist’s life began, symbolizing Ahab’s oppositeness to Christlike values (Braswell 152).
Ahab also baptizes his specially made harpoon in the name of the devil “Ego nobaptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli. ” The translation of Ahab’s Latin is, “Ido not baptize thee in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil. ” Ahabbaptizes his harpoon in the blood of his pagan harpooners: Queequeg, Dagoo, andTashtego. Ahab’s personal whaleboat abounds with heathens, led by Fedallah, whosename suggests “dev(il) Allah,” the Crusader view of Allah (Murray 41).
Melville adds more symbolism near the end of the novel. When Ahab announcedhis devious intentions early in the voyage, he offered an Ecuadorian dubloon as a prizefor the first man who sighted Moby Dick. The coin shows the sun moving into thezodiacal constellation of Libra, the Scales. Did Melville plant this symbol to suggest thescales of fate were weighing in on Ahab? (Chase, “Melville” 59).
Fate weighed Ahaband found him wanting because his evil quest ends in despair. He chases Moby Dick,Moby Dick does not chase him. Had he not pursued Moby Dick, Moby Dick would nothave destroyed the entire ship and its crew, save Ishmael who survived the encounter(Arvin 217). On day three of Ahab’s hunt, the whale destroys the whaling boats and thePequod, thereby destroying those who seek to escape their human limitations andquestion their divinely ordained fate. Melville’s allegories and symbolism Ahabsymbolizing men who feel wronged by God and Moby Dick symbolizing a vengeful Godwho will destroy those who wish to destroy Him are woven into a timelessmasterpiece of exposition and are revealed through a vast array of symbols, hints, andrantings.
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