American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

AHAB. The captain of the Nantucket whaleship Pequod* in Herman Melville’s* novel Moby-Dick* (1851), Ahab is identified by a scar running down his face, his ivory leg, replacing the leg taken by Moby Dick, and his fixed, seaward gaze. Soon after his first appearance in Melville’s novel, he proclaims to the Pequods crew, hypnotized by the urgency and eloquence of his rhetoric, his intention to seek and to slay Moby Dick. Resisted only by his first mate, Starbuck, Ahab legitimates this quest by implying that the white whale is the embodiment of evil. To the task of discovering one whale in all the world's seas Ahab brings extraordinary intellectual concentration and physical courage. However, he becomes increasingly isolated from his crew and from gams with other whaleship captains and increasingly hubristic, projecting the illusion of an intellectual and spiritual power over nature, through technological tricks and black magic. Finally confronting Moby Dick, Ahab sees the whale sink the Pequod and dies, snared in his own harpoon line.

Numerous antecedents have been suggested as sources for Captain Ahab, whose namesake is an idolatrous Hebrew king, including other Old Testament figures Adam, Jonah, and Job; the classical Prometheus; Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear; as well as Johann Goethe’s Faust, John Milton’s Satan, and Lord Byron’s Manfred. Through association with such tragic figures, who, in their suffering, defiance of human limitations, and challenge to God’s authority, become heroic, Melville ennobles his American whaling captain.

Critics, however, considering the devastating impact of Ahab’s quest on his crew, also perceive him as a reflection of nineteenth-century imperialism and industrialism and a precursor of twentieth-century fascism. Caricatured since the 1950s in cartoons, adventure novels, and science fiction as the archetypal, driven madman, Melville’s Ahab remains an enigmatic, complex, and moving character. Enduring contemporary interest with a feminist orientation is demonstrated by two creative endeavors: Ellen Driscoll and Tom Sleigh’s “Ahab’s Wife or the Whale,” a multimedia theatrical production that premiered in 1998, and Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer (1999).

Elizabeth Schultz