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Moby Dick (1583 words)

Moby Dick
Moby Dick can be viewed as a tragedy. Webster’s Dictionary defines tragedy as
a “dramatic composition, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically
that of a great person destined through flaw of character or conflict with some
overpowering force, fate or circumstance to downfall or destruction.” This
describes Moby Dick very well, as we discover as the story unfolds. Ahab, one of
the key characters in the novel, can be viewed as the protagonist, one who
causes the actions that occur and who brings the story to its tragic conclusion.

He is seen as the tragic hero. He is a man distinguished by courage and ability,
who is admired for his qualities and achievements. The reader can sympathize,
feeling pity and compassion for Ahab. We can understand to some extent the
feelings that this man must have experienced and we can relate to them. The
villain or antagonist to Ahab is Moby Dick, the White Whale whom Ahab pursues,
leading to the death of himself and his crew. This leaves Ishmael as the only
survivor to tell the story. Ahab is a deeply disturbed man. He could be viewed
as a crazy lunatic. Though crazy as he is, he clearly knows what he wants to do
and has a clear plan to do it and carries it out to the end. Ahab can be seen as
both the tragic hero and a crazy lunatic. The story unfolds in New Bedford,
where the narrator Ishmael comes seeking a job on a whaling vessel. In New
Bedford he shares a bed at an Inn with a cannibal from New Zealand. The cannibal
is a skilled harpooner named Queequeq. Ishmael and Queequeq become immediate
friends. The two end up choosing the vessel named The Piquod. One of the two
owners, Peleg who they interview with before they are given positions with the
ship, describes Ahab as a “…grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab;
doesn’t speak much but when he does speak, then you may well listen.” (76)
We are told by Peleg that he is “..moody, desperate moody and savage
sometimes.” “…Better to be a moody good captain than a laughing bad
one.” (77) The name Ahab is symbolic and taken from the Bible. Ahab was an
evil man having had someone killed so he could be king. He was named after his
widowed mother, who died when he was only twelve months old. Peleg seems to want
Ishmael to overlook the wickedness of Ahab. Ishmael comes away more struck by
sympathy and sorrow for him and the loss of his leg, overlooking the dark side
of Ahab. Ishmael tells of his impression of Ahab, after they have been out at
sea for several days. Ahab was in his cabin out of view of the crew up until
then. Ishmael’s description gives the reader a picture of the devastation that
the whale did to the captain’s body. Regardless of Ahab’s disabilities, the
captain maintains a strong sense of dignity. The reader soon finds that Ahab’s
temperament is very mean spirited as evidenced in his run in with Stubb, who had
suggested that he find some way to muffle the planks when he walked as he
disturbed the crew. He no longer finds simple pleasure anymore because of the
torment of his obsession. This is illustrated when he throws his favorite pipe
into the sea. The pipe is a symbol of peace and tranquility. Not something in
the disposition of this man. Melville uses symbols like these throughout the
book. During the voyage, Ahab gathers his crew, giving them grog and performing
a pagan ceremony to join him in hunting down and killing Moby Dick. This is an
example of his manipulation of the crew in to supporting him. He entices them
with the prospect of winning a gold doubloon, which he stakes on the mast to the
first person that spots the white whale. To appeal to his harpooners he engages
them in a pagan blood ceremony. These acts work in getting them on his side. The
only one who is horrified by this is Starbuck, his first mate. He sees the mad
man, incapable of keeping to the mission at hand, which is harvesting whales for
profit. Starbuck acts as a thorn in Ahab’s side throughout the story, keeping
Ahab somewhat honest during the voyage We can see Ahab as a tormented man; he
suffers in physical and mental pain, and is obsessed by only one thing,
vengeance against the whale. This does not allow him room in his heart for love
and affection for others. The whale symbolizes a thing, he must destroy to
regain what he has lost in his life, his freedom, and his mastery over his
world. He sees his encounter with the whale as a defeat. By being maimed by the
whale he is no longer the invincible, immortal “godlike” sea captain, Peleg
has portrayed. He knows that in this pursuit he may die and so may his crew. He
has accepted this fate. To regain what he has lost he must be victorious or die
trying. Ahab is a man who we know had been to sea for years, three voyages,
neglecting his wife and child in Nantucket. He is a loner with no friends. No
one can come close to him. He is feared.. Numerous examples support that
something is not quite right with Ahab’s mental state. Early on, we learn that
he has stowed away, much to the surprise of the crew, a mysterious group of
oriental men (Parsees) who act as Ahab’s own personal whaling crew, designed
specifically to hunt Moby Dick. The leader, Fedallah, it seems is perceived by
the crew as having a dark influence over Ahab. Stubb at one point confides to
Flask that he thinks that Fedallah is the devil himself and Flask thinks that
Ahab may have struck a deal with him. Another example that demonstrates his
madness is the sad case of Pip, the castaway. The small African boy was required
to replace an oarsman on Stubb’s boat; he was cast overboard and nearly
drowned. From the experience, he goes mad. Pip seemed to have been sacrificed
for the sake of Ahab’s obsession. We see a similar story in Ahab’s own life.

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He had abandoned his own wife and child. Seeming to remember back to those days,
he shows a small sign of affection toward the insane Pip. When the Pequod meets
the whaling ship, the Samuel Enderby, on the high seas we get a look at the
mindset of Ahab opposed to the mind of a rational and sane sea captain. Captain
Boomer had suffered a similar fate to that of Ahab’s at the wrath of the white
whale. Instead of a leg he lost his hand. His hand was replaced by whale ivory.

The two engage in a discussion. Ahab is interested in knowing the location of
the whale. Captain Boomer does not want to have anything to do with the whale
and he thinks Ahab is crazy for wanting to pursue him and risk further bodily
injury. Along the long journey, the Pequod encounters some problems with whale
oil leaking in the hold. Starbuck immediately tells Ahab that they need to fix
the problem or they would loose their profits. Ahab does not want to waste time
in his pursuit of Moby Dick but finally agrees to his responsibilities as
captain. In the chapter “Pequod Meets The Bachelor,” we see the contrast of
what could have been the fate of the Pequod. The Bachelor was a ship with a
happy crew loaded with a large cargo of whale, headed home. Had not a mad man
been the captain of the Pequod, the same happy ending would have resulted
instead of the tragic one we will see later on. Later, the Pequod meets another
ship, the Rachel. Ahab asks the usual question about the whereabouts of the
white whale. Captain Gardinar of the Rachel it turns out is missing a boat with
his young son in it and needs the aid of The Pequod to find the boy. Ahab seems
more interested in the subject of the white whale then the missing boy. Ahab
refuses Gardiner’s plea for help. His refusal shows how his mania has
overtaken his sense of human decency. Ahab meets his end in the final three
chapters, which describe the chase and his crew’s death brought on by Moby
Dick. Ishmael is the loan survivor, clinging to the coffin originally prepared
for what was thought as a dying Queequeg. The use of coffin, another symbol
Melville uses to show us survival over death. The Rachel picks up Ishmael at
sea, saving his life and allowing him to tell the story. Ahab is not a typical
hero. A contrast to Ahab would be the sailor named Bulkington, a cabin mate of
Ishmael. He may have been more the conventional hero then Ahab. Ishmael
described him as follows: “He stood full six feet in height, with noble
shoulders, and a chest like a coffer-dam. I have seldom seen such brawn in a
man….His voice at once announced that he was a Southerner, and from his fine
stature, I thought he must be one of those tall mountaineers…When the revelry
of his companions had mounted to its height this man slipped away unobserved,
and I saw no more of him till he became a comrade on the sea. In a few minutes ,
however, he was missed by his shipmates, and being, it seems for some reason, a
huge favorite of them, they raised a cry of Bulkington! Bulkington! and darted
out of the house looking for him.” (23-24) Bulkington, of course later died
with rest of the crew on the Piquod. The man well liked is in sharp contrast to
the sad, disfigure, crazy man, Ahab. Regardless of the view you take about
Ahab’s sanity, everyone can agree that he had a gripping obsession with the
white whale. Moby Dick, who symbolizes much more then an animal is never killed
by the crazy Ahab.


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