Ahab's Devolution in Herman Melville's Moby Dick
Ahab, the monomaniacal ship captain of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, is a man plagued by revenge. Searching the seas for the whale who took his leg and along with it, his ability to effectively assimilate into society, Ahab continually shows himself to be a man concerned with a single unvarying mission. While determinedly seeking out the white whale, Ahab continues to drift farther from mankind as he gets closer to reaching Moby Dick. Because of this single-minded searching, Ahab ultimately becomes similar to an animal, consumed with a compulsion to hunt that is coupled with a loss of reason. By focusing on the nine gams--social meetings of ship captains while at sea--Ahab’s transformation, which manifests itself in his inability to successfully relate to others, can be traced through the narrative. This transformation culminates in Ahab’s complete loss of his humanity and ultimately results in his final fall--his death at sea.
The nine gams within Moby Dick represent microcosms of the world that exists beyond the sea. They work to further the narrative, while each also acts as an individual reference point at which Ahab’s transformation and loss of humanity can be pinpointed. Melville devotes an entire chapter within the narrative to defining gams, narrowing his definition to, “a social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews” (221). Melville’s assertion that these meetings are of a “social” nature indicates the casual nature inherent to a gam. Through this definition, Melville also establishes that gams occur to those on “Whale-ships” rather than on all ships, indicating the uniqueness and more genial nature that may be inherent to whaling vessels. Establishing the behaviors that typify the ordinary is necessary because, “individuality itself may require some relation [to the other] in order to exert and maintain its essential independence” (James Dean Young 449). In other words, we must know the behaviors that are typical of gams because it establishes the behaviors that are atypical. The sociality of these meetings, in which captains and their men would typically “have all sorts of dear domestic things to talk about,” (Melville 219) serves as a contrast to the behavior of Captain Ahab, furthering the position that he is decidedly unusual and unsociable.Critic Henry Alonzo Myers states that Ahab’s “madness is beyond common experience only in its intensity” (Myers 33). This suggests that Ahab’s obsession is unique only in its intensity, however this would be overlooking everything that occurs because of the intensity of the obsession, one of the most obvious being a loss of empathy and humanity. An examination of the gams or “relations to the world” (Young 449) is important because it shows that while Ahab’s resolution to find and kill Moby Dick is “intense” (Myers 33), it renders him completely unable to relate to mankind. He no longer cares abut the “dear domestic things” that would ordinarily unite people. These ties or “bonds” (John Idol 156) unite, creating a framework for the additional connections that occur between Ahab and the other ships’ captains. Looking at these bonds with a specific focus on those of social and economic significance (Idol 156), we see that by breaking them, Ahab is cutting his ties to mankind and distancing himself from his humanity.
Additionally, the most valuable and unquestionably difficult methods of relation between Ahab and his men, and Ahab and the other ships, is communication (Young 450) or its lack thereof. The first grouping of gams, which occurs with the Albatross, the Town-Ho, and the Jeroboam, are united within this theme of communication, while also acting to further Ahab’s devolution. This becomes clear when the text is analyzed in regard to its language and contents.
When describing the Albatross, Melville’s language creates an air of mystery and establishes it as a foreign entity, while simultaneously casting Moby Dick in an ominous light. The Albatross’ rigging is described as “thick branches of trees furred over with hoar-frost,” while the whole of the vessel is referred to as being “a wild sight” (217). Additionally, Melville refers to the ship’s captain as a “strange captain,” (217) emphasizing the oddness of the man, rather than the unfamiliarity that would be expressed with terms denoting him a “stranger” or “unknown” captain. By emphasizing the peculiarity of the ship, Melville intensifies the following sequence of events in which the Pequod is unable to successfully communicate with the Albatross. This is most clearly seen when the Albatross‘ captain drops his trumpet, his only tool for communication, “Putting his trumpet to his mouth, it somehow fell from his hand into the sea; and the wind now rising amain, he in vain strove to make himself heard without it” (217). This act, having occurred “at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name to another ship” (217) foreshadows the Pequod’s eventual encounter with Moby Dick, while also acting as an implied warning that literally cannot be heard by Ahab.
Additionally, by dropping the trumpet, the Albatross’ captain breaks what critic John Idol refers to as a “mechanical bond” or “the quantitative relation of force and matter [that] requires the action of a manipulator” (156). This is one of the several types of bonds that occurs within Moby Dick and is clearly an ominous symbol. A “social” bond is also broken within this scene, if only indirectly, when the two captains are rendered unable to communicate. Communication is critical because “the aid of other [ships] is impossible when communication is [halted by] insurmountable difficulties” (Young 451). While “aid” is not needed in the traditional sense, in this instance, the Albatross may possess information that could aid the Pequod’s journey, however, it will never be heard.
Ahab’s determinedness is also brought to light within this failed gam. When communication with the Albatross is made impossible, Ahab “seemed as though he would have lowered a boat to board the stranger, had not the threatening wind forbade” (217). Ahab is so curious about the Albatross’ possible knowledge concerning Moby Dick, that he is willing to travel to the other ship in order to find out. This illustrates the beginning of Ahab’s obsession, although it is slight. At this beginning junction, Ahab even appears giddy in his optimism, shouting “This is the Pequod, bound round the world! Tell them to address all future letters to the Pacific ocean!” (217-18). It appears that he is excited and even mildly concerned with letters that may be addressed for him and his men, however, he is cut off by the ocean waves and his ability to communicate is once again stifled.
Within this gam it appears that Ahab desires to have contact with his fellow man. However, this idea is immediately contradicted within the following chapter, “The Gam” in which Melville’s narrator asserts that Ahab’s eagerness to reach out to the Albatross wouldn’t have occurred if he had “obtained a negative answer to the question he put,” (219) regarding their knowledge of Moby Dick. Additionally, he states that Ahab, “cared not to consort, even for five minutes, with any stranger captain” (219). Knowing this, it becomes clear that Ahab’s desire for contact is entirely self-serving and has little to do with establishing communication or social bonds with his fellow man and his monomania is concretely established. While his desperate need for information concerning the white whale is just beginning, Melville’s earlier employment of ominous foreshadowing is suggestive of the long downward spiral awaiting him.
The second gam within Moby Dick occurs between the Pequod and Town-Ho. This gam works to further the foreboding nature of Moby Dick through the story that is told by the crew of the Town-Ho, rather than from information gathered by Ahab during the actual gam. The “Town-Ho’s Story” tells of the ship’s violent encounter with the white whale, as learned by the crew of the Pequod from Tashtego. Situating their encounter within inter-ship disputes while whaling on the Town-Ho, the audience is given the first detailed example of the wrath Moby Dick is capable of inflicting. When recounting the death of the Town-Ho’s mate, Radney, Melville writes, “The whale rushed round in a sudden maelstrom; seized the swimmer between his jaws; and rearing high with him, plunged headlong again, and went down” (234). The whale’s destructive capability is made clear through a recount of the mauling, as opposed to only a reference of the damage he had done, as is the case with Ahab’s leg. Additionally, Moby Dick is described as “destroying” (234) the man, creating a sense of complete obliteration and finality to the attack.
Similar to the gam with the Albatross, the “Town-Ho’s Story” works to foreshadow the Pequod’s impending encounter with Moby Dick. The narrative involving Radney’s death works as “both a warning and a prophecy, neither of which Ahab ever receives” (Young 452) because Ahab is never told their story. By keeping silent, the crew of the Pequod place themselves in danger while illustrating the destructiveness that can be incurred when communication breaks down. Additionally, by recounting the story of the re-telling of this story, Ishmael places himself within the context of life after surviving the Pequod. While he does not directly address the Pequod’s eventual fate, his layering of the story--a yarn about a yarn--implies the importance of the Town-Ho’s experience in relation to the future events of the Pequod.
While this gam does not outwardly address Ahab’s transformation and loss of humanity, the lack of communication is indicative of the distance between him and his men. When information is kept from him, even if he is unaware of it, it diminishes his position as the utmost authority of the ship. His job as captain, the highest position on the ship, is an integral part of his identity. When he is removed from the place of power and his place as captain is eroded, his identity ultimately begins to break down. This breakdown continues as the gams between the Pequod and other whaling ships occur within the narrative.
The Pequod’s third gam with the Jeroboam almost immediately illustrates Ahab’s growing inability to interact with other men. He is described as “demand[ing]” (285) to know whether the Jeroboam’s captain has seen Moby Dick. While this language denotes the continuing loss of his ability to relate reasonably to his fellow man, its forcefulness is also suggestive that his concern is growing. He is becoming desperate as the need to find and destroy the whale is consuming him.
Additionally, this gam is concerned with the aspects of communication seen within the previous gams. Conversation between Ahab and the Jeroboam’s captain is repeatedly interrupted, “a headlong wave shot the boat far ahead, and its seethings drowned all speech” (285). These interruptions draw attention to and emphasize the dialog that is able to take place. Similar to the previous two gams, the discernible dialog works to warn of the ominous events awaiting any ship that crosses paths with Moby Dick. The Jeroboam’s “archangel” or prophet, Gabriel, warns Ahab, “Think, think of thy whale-boat, stoven and sunk! Beware of the horrible tail!” (285). This warning addresses not only the Pequod’s crew, who are in danger, but also draws attention to the economic bonds, the whale boats belonging to the Pequod‘s owners, that will undoubtedly be broken upon contact with the whale. However, Ahab’s behavior in the previous gams has indicated that regardless of any warnings, his single-mindedness and determination will not allow him to be deterred. This solidifies the monomania that possesses Ahab and frames the remainder of events for all aboard the Pequod.
The fourth and fifth gams shift Ahab’s position within the narrative. He recedes into the background of the interaction, which itself is indicative of his growing loss of humanity and ability to relate to mankind, while also suggesting a deepening obsession that prevents him from partaking in ordinary events.
Ahab almost immediately removes himself from the events of the gam with the Jungfrau. He is described as “abruptly accosting” her captain, and upon learning that he has “complete ignorance” (315) regarding the white whale, Ahab disappears. The polarity of these descriptions, the aggression contrasted with the implied naiveté, furthers the idea that Ahab’s irritability and lack of empathy is beyond that of an ordinary man.
Without Ahab’s presence in the gam, the focus shifts to a chase between the Jungfrau and the Pequod’s whale boats. The whale being chased becomes the focus, drawing notable comparisons between him and Ahab. The first comparison is seen in the bull whale’s withdrawal from the larger pod (which has made him a discernable target for the whaling boats) Melville noting that, “it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social” (316). A parallel is also seen between their physical bodies, the whale possessing an “unnatural stump of his starboard fin,” (316) while Ahab’s own leg has been irrevocably damaged and subsequently replaced with a prosthetic. The parallels occurring between Ahab and the whale are important because they illustrate the growing similarities between Ahab and Moby Dick. These similarities illustrate the dehumanizing power of obsession and becomes critical in the later chapters concerning The Chase between Ahab and Moby Dick.
The gam with the Jungfrau also illustrates the distance that Ahab places between himself and his crew. During the ensuing whale hunt, the captain of the Jungfrau, Derick, is in a whaleboat along with his men. Melville describes him as “eager for the chase” (316) while goading his men on. Ahab, however, remains aboard the ship while Stubb is the man motivating the Pequod’s whaleboats with his cries, “Pull now, men, like fifty thousand line-of-battle-ship loads of red-haired devils”(317). In this instance the individual, Ahab, placed in relation to an “other” (Young 449), Derick, emphasizes Ahab’s absence. This absence is symbolic of the distance that Ahab creates not only between himself and his men, but between himself and the world.
The fifth gam, between the Pequod and the Rose-Bud is the second instance in which Ahab is far removed from the action. He is utterly unconcerned with meeting the ship’s captain and instead, all socialization and communication is carried out by his mate, Stubb. Typical of the previous gams, the meeting with the Rose-Bud initially centers on whether or not they have information concerning the whale. While Ahab’s physical presence is limited to his “leaning over the quarter-deck rail awaiting his report,” (360) his insistence is felt. He has remained on board, but his need for immediate information has placed him in a physical position that denotes a demand. He is “leaning” over the deck awaiting the news, rather than waiting until Stubb returns to the ship. Furthermore, Ahab breaks a social bond when he sends Stubb to socialize with the Rose-Bud, rather than attending the gam himself. By breaking a social bond, Ahab once again separates himself from the world around him, furthering his loss of humanity through his inability to connect with other men.
Additionally, an economic bond is broken in this instance. After learning of the Rose-Bud’s lack of information concerning Moby Dick, Stubb proceeds to trick her captain into leaving behind a dead whale that Stubb believes to contain the exceedingly valuable substance ambergris, which is “worth a gold guinea an ounce” (362). Upon finding that the whale does contain ambergris, “‘I have it. I have it,’ cried Stubb, with delight, striking something in subterranean regions, ‘a purse! A purse’” (362) an economic bond has been created. Stubb has acquired both the whale and the valuable contents within it, through his own means however, as a part of the crew of the Pequod, he is directly connected to Ahab and is ultimately at Ahab’s discretion. Melville writes, “Some six handfuls were obtained…and more, perhaps, might have been secured were it not for impatient Ahab’s loud command to Stubb to desist, and come on board, else the ship would bid them good bye” (362). Because Stubb is dependent upon Ahab for conveyance, Stubb is unable to gather all of the ambergris and therefore cuts his potential profit. Ahab’s “impatient” command to leave or be left behind severs the economic bond that had been created. By breaking this bond, Ahab is potentially creating discontent amongst his men who desire the profit to be gained from the ambergris. This discontent furthers Ahab’s separation from his men and parallels his remoteness within the world.
The fifth gam, involving the Samuel Enderby, abruptly ends Ahab’s physical removal from the socialization of the encounters, however what would ordinarily denote a positive change in attitude or demeanor becomes, for Ahab, the beginning of the end. The gam with the Samuel Enderby is the first in Ahab’s final path of destruction that weaves through the final four gams and culminates in Ahab’s demise in the final chapters of the novel.
Upon sighting the Samuel Enderby, Ahab places himself back amongst the interaction, once again shouting, “Ship, ahoy! Hast seen the White Whale?” (356). But for the first time, the captain of the Samuel Enderby possesses personal information about the whale, thus peaking Ahab’s interest and creating a social bond between them. Upon sighting the Samuel Enderby’s captain, Boomer‘s, ivory arm, Ahab is described as behaving “impetuous” and “excited[ly]” (387). Ahab’s mood has clearly been uplifted because not only will his need for information concerning Moby Dick likely be satiated, but also because a palpable tie has been established between himself and another man, as evidenced in their ivory limbs. An instantaneous camaraderie is felt by Ahab, as indicated by his cry, “Aye, aye, hearty! Let us shake bones together!—an arm and a leg!” (387) This bond is based entirely upon a shared experience involving Moby Dick. In this instance, as the two prosthetic limbs touch, an organic or living organism-based bond (Idol 156) has also been created. This experience illustrates Ahab’s ability to form bonds with others, emphasizing the contrast as his humanity disappears. Knowing that he is still capable of connecting to others makes his approaching disintegration and loss of humanity all the more tragic. These events are an additional example of individuality or otherness emerging from relation or comparison to another (Young 449). If Ahab had never evidenced his capability of forming bonds, it would be easier to dismiss his petulance as simply a character flaw that has always existed. However, his lack of empathy and ability to relate is pitiable because he has demonstrated that he can engage in meaningful human interaction.
This gam also works as a warning and a prediction. When referring to his own encounter with Moby Dick, Captain Boomer states, “I resolved to capture him, spite of the boiling rage he seemed to be in” (Melville 388). This quote illustrates the captain’s knowledge that Moby Dick was dangerous, even before he set out to capture him and in going against this knowledge, his arm was lost. Clearly, Ahab is aware that Moby Dick is dangerous. Not only has he learned of others misfortunes, but he has already lost a leg to the whale. In pursuing his vendetta with all of his knowledge, Ahab has doomed himself to losing more than a limb. Ahab’s obsession will drive him to his death. Unlike Ahab, captain Boomer is not possessed by monomania and undeterred vengeance, even though he too is a victim. Captain Boomer shoes his opposite attitude by explaining, “He’s 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 from him once, and that has satisfied me” (390). Unlike Ahab, a strong sense of reverence is felt for Moby Dick and his power. Additionally, Captain Boomer warns Ahab outright, “He’s best let alone; don’t you think,” (390) but for Ahab, “rationality and indifference [are] impossible attitudes” (Young 458). Being unable to leave the whale alone, Ahab shows a complete disregard for the lives of himself and his crew. This trend continues through the next gam, as Ahab copes with his impending fate.
The seventh gam, occurring with the Bachelor, places the good fortune of the Bachelor in contrast with the gloomy Pequod, in order to illustrate how far down Ahab has descended. The crew of the Bachelor is introduced while celebrating the bounty of spermaceti amassed over their journey. Their captain is described as standing “erect on the ship’s elevated quarter-deck, so that the whole rejoicing drama was full before him” (Melville 433). The captains physical presence, his “erect” stance, coupled with his physical height while on the “elevated” deck, gives him a sense of power and pride that Ahab does not have. This sharply contrasts Ahab’s “stubborn gloom” (433) which is suggestive of Ahab’s poor mental state. His stubbornness will not allow him to stop searching for the whale, even though he is aware that no good will come of it, leaving him in a dark state of gloom.
After learning that the Bachelor possesses no information regarding Moby Dick, the captain going so far as to say that he, “don’t believe in him at all,” (433) Ahab is once again alone. The ships course, headed for Ahab’s home, Nantucket, brings out a reflective side of Ahab. Removing a jar of “Nantucket soundings” (433) or sea-bottom sand from his pocket, Ahab silently implies that he will never again return. This scene creates a sense of longing for home, while at the same time saying goodbye in order to push forward and finish what he has set out for, emphasizing the irrationality of Ahab’s monomania.
The penultimate gam involving the Rachel illustrates Ahab’s extreme selfishness as it emerges from self-destruction. Ahab shows his true self as he cruelly denies the Rachel’s needs in order to pursue his fixation with Moby Dick. The Rachel’s Captain Gardiner boards the Pequod in order to ask Ahab to assist him in finding a lost whaling boat, a vessel containing the man’s own son. Captain Gardiner’s desire for the wealth attained in whaling has been put on hold, a rare experience during an ordinary expedition, “Who ever heard of two pious whale-ships cruising after one missing whale-boat in the height of the whaling season?” (464). However, because the boat contains the captain‘s son, “‘My boy, my own boy is among them. For God’s sake’” (464). Gardiner has deemed the diversion necessary and the hunt has been postponed. The need to save a life has taken precedent over the desire to take life and it is in the differences between need and desire and the act of saving versus that of taking, that illustrate Captain Ahab’s distance from humanity and his complete disregard for civility.
Captain Gardiner requests the assistance of Ahab in a desperate manner, “I beg, I conjure” (464). The desperation and desire of his plight is of the same unyielding manner as is Ahab’s, Gardiner stating, “You must, and you shall do this thing” (464). Gardiner’s assertion that Ahab “shall” join his party in the search is given as an unyielding command and he will absolutely not accept “No” for an answer. While he and Ahab share a similar, consuming task, Gardiner’s is one of necessity. The parts that comprise his whole are disconnected and he absolutely needs reconnection. He needs to reunite with a human being, with his child, in order to be complete again. Conversely, Captain Ahab possesses a desire, a want. He craves and covets the death of Moby Dick, inevitably destroying any humanity left within him because of his disregard for others.
Additionally, Captain Gardiner’s need is coupled with a positive act, the saving of a life. In trying to find the lost whaling boat, he has committed himself to giving, rather than taking life. In sharp contrast, Ahab’s desire exists entirely for the destruction of a life. When presented with the opportunity to save rather than destroy, Ahab cries, “‘touch not a rope-yarn;’ then in a voice that prolonging moulded every word--’Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time’” (465). In denying Gardiner his assistance in saving, opting instead to work towards taking, Ahab severs his ties to mankind. By telling Gardiner, “I will not do it,” Ahab shows that he is completely without empathy for his fellow man. His need to kill is of greater importance than the chance to save lives. In this instance, Ahab has severed his last social bond. In denying Gardiner, Ahab shows that there is no evidence of humanity left within him. He has destroyed any last hope of connecting to anyone and has doomed himself to an isolated death at sea. The novel’s last gam furthers this idea as the harpoon that ultimately works against Ahab, is introduced.
Ahab learns in the ninth gam that the “miserably misnamed” (472) ship, the Delight, has lost men in an encounter with Moby Dick, “I bury but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night” (472). Here, Ahab introduces to the Delight’s captain, the harpoon that he fully believes will bring an end to Moby Dick:
Ahab believes that he will be the one to go further than any man before him and be successful in his attempt to kill the whale. The large amount of trust that Ahab places in himself and the harpoon is indicative of a loss of reason. His illusions of grandeur--that he will be the one to kill Moby Dick--shows his madness. He is completely devoid of any humanity because he has lost all ties to the world. This is shown by his lack of social ties, as evidenced in the gam with the Rachel, in addition to mental ties or cognitive awareness, as seen in his lack of reason, in this instant. Because Ahab has severed these ties, both of which are necessary possessions if one is to function adequately in the world, he has fated himself to death. He simply cannot live back on land.
The tragic end that is evidenced in Ahab’s loss of humanity, is made certain when Ahab finally encounters Moby Dick. The harpoon that is his tool of destruction also works against him:
Ahab’s notion that he could kill Moby Dick has caused his “tragic” fall (Friedman 112). The harpoon that was meant to kill Moby Dick, has instead resulted in Ahab’s death. This event shows that Ahab’s obsession has caused his demise.
Melville’s employment of irony is a suiting end for Ahab. In dying by the harpoon that was intended to kill the whale and with it, bring Ahab back into the world, the fact that he has devolved too far to be able to come back and interact with civilization is emphasized. It is fitting that Ahab leave this world--in which he can no longer communicate--silently. This silence is the culmination of his loss of humanity and disintegration of the bonds presented through the nine gams of the Pequod.
Bryant, John and Haskell Springer, eds. Moby Dick. By Herman Melville. 1851. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Friedman, Maurice. Problematic Rebel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Myers, Henry Alonzo. “Captain Ahab’s Discovery: The Tragic Meaning of Moby Dick”. The New England Quarterly. 15.1 (1942): 15-34. JSTOR. San Jose State University.