Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Did Captain Ahab Forget His Meds?

Captain Ahab--a major causal character in Herman Melville's novel, Moby-Dick; a man so bent on revenge that he becomes the instrument for the death of all but one seaman aboard the whaler Pequod; a sworn foe of the great while whale, Moby-Dick;by extension a metaphor for an individual so focused on his goal that all perspective becomes lost. (See also Don Quixote, King Lear,Wile E. Coyote)

For all its enormity and discursiveness, there is little specific information in Moby-Dick about Captain Ahab; he is a follower of the Quaker faith (an enormous fact given his vengeful mission), has a young wife and son, is somewhere between his late fifties and early sixties, has spent most of his life at sea, is named after a biblical king. Using this scant information, Sena Jeeter Nasland has written a novel, Ahab's Wife, which further investigates his conflicting humanity and desire for revenge.

While it is possible to read Moby-Dick as an adventure, the characters within it engage in existential and moral questions to a degree that causes the novel itself and many of the characters within it to take on the dimensions and whale-like aspects of metaphor. (Ahab's first mate, Starbuck, for example, is a well-read intellectual, also a Quaker, who is able to argue and discuss with Ahab from a similar background.) 

Add to that calculus the fact of the whale, which clearly is making statements of its own with a considerable intelligence of its own. The interesting question arises, Did Melville deliberately or by artistic accident happen upon the American equivalent of John Milton's Paradise Lost? A pursuit of the answer to that question may well lead, for the appropriate seeker, to thematic insight at a comparable level to Nasland's curiosity about Ahab himself and the woman who married him.

Ahab's attractiveness for all writers of fiction begins with the unyielding strength of his purpose--to track down and destroy the whale. A Quaker whose moral code speaks to pacifism, Ahab's actions and determinations are encouraged by the inner voices of hatred and loathing in the face of the whale's supposed representation of pure evil. 

 Thus even were he to have won, Ahab would have had to face the consequences of his conscience. By now, over a hundred fifty years after the publication of Moby-Dick, it is no spoiler to observe that the whale is directly responsible for the sinking of the Pequod and the death of all aboard her except Ishmael (who survives in order to render his first-person account of what happened). Does this absolute sense of doom that begins with the very first line, Call me Ishmael, make the reader aware that the events are any less tragic than, say, King Lear?

Is it such an unfathomable jump for a writer to see connections between the character of Ahab and Don Quixote and Wile E. Coyote in a landscape haunted by the imperceptible divisions between revenge (Ahab's), illusion (Don Quixote's), and humiliation (Wile. E. Coyote's)?

Ahab is a gritty reminder of the ways a character's goals become the interior decorator for the setting, pace, and ultimate effect of story.

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